US Reporter

The old meets the new: How a traditional Korean drink made its way to bars

Photo: Special Vietnam Plus

Korea, a country known for its rich culture and tradition, has seamlessly combined it with popular trends. This is most notable in bars where consumers will find traditional drinks like soju on the menu alongside cocktails tailored specifically towards younger customers who enjoy elements from both worlds but still want something uniquely Korean. In the current, another traditional wine is making its way into the mainstream.

Makgeolli is an affordable rice wine more popular for its price — not the taste. The drink has a milky and sweet flavor, often preferred by Korean drinkers when they don’t have enough change to buy something else instead.

Kim Kyung-seop, an entrepreneur who has been selling Makgeolli for years, recalls that he drank the beverage with his friends as part of a Korean tradition. He said that they bought the drink at only 40 cents back when he was a college student in 1948.

“When we were with women, we would drink beer. But among the boys, we drank makgeolli,” Kim said, describing the drink as something ‘unfit to impress women’ before. But today, Makgeolli has gained traction and is now trending — mostly in the eyes of on-the-rise entrepreneurs and brewers.

Kim established Boksoondoga, a premium makgeolli brewery, in 2009. He said, “We worked very hard to get rid of the established images people hold of makgeolli.”

His father had to scold him numerous times because he was more interested in brewing the wine than finishing his Architecture degree at Union Cooper in New York.

But his father’s musings did not discourage the then-young Kim from following his passion. And several years later, he became CEO of an organization that would inspire other young people to take up their passions as well.

The Japanese colonization of Korea led to many cultural practices being phased out. Taxes were imposed on alcohol-making, further complicating the situation for traditional brewers. Moreover, the Korean War and World War Two put more pressure on the brewers of traditional beverages in the country.

Food shortage was rampant during the 1960s prompting the government to ban the production of wine using rice — makgeolli’s key ingredient.

When the ban was lifted in 1995 because of economic recovery, alcohol-making was then again legalized. But the tradition of makgeolli-making was lost.

The production of makgeolli was almost lost, but with the help of researchers like Park Rock-dam it has been brought back to life. Park went around Korea to compile information on the drink – how it is made and where it comes from.

The movement was amplified after the government asserted its position on the preservation of cultural practices such as brew making of traditional Korean beverages.

Since then, many have followed suit. Kim Kyung-seop is one example. His classes are composed of younger members in their 30s and mostly entrepreneurs.

There has been an upswing of licensed makgeolli brewers in 2009, the National Tax Service reports. According to their data, there is a 43% increase in brewers and the trend will continue as makgeolli is popularized in bars.