Sunday, August 26, 2012

Makkoli - An Historical Perspective

Makkoli, makgeolli, makgoli (막걸리) is a traditional, in fact oldest, alcoholic drink of Korea. Historically, it was made of rice and a fermentation process, but now it may have wheat in addition to the rice to add an additional sweetness to the fermentation process, and also because wheat is much cheaper to produce. Unlike other alcoholic drinks, some say that makkoli utilizes and intrigues the 5 tastes (as does another traditional schisandra berry Korean tea, omijacha (오미자차, 五味子茶), named because the tea comprises five (오) distinct flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent).

History of Makkoli

The history of makkoli can be traced back to the Kojoseon period by documentation in The Poetic Records of Emperors and Kings (Jewangun-gi) written in the Goryeo Dynasty during the reign of King Dongmyeong. When the drink came to be called makkoli is unclear to me, but throughout history it has been called by many names. In the Goryeo Dynasty it was frequently called ehwaju (이화주), which is literally 이화 "pear blossom" plus 주 "drink", a cultural name as the drink though made of rice was made when the pear blossoms were blooming and so it appears to be a more seasonally appreciated drink.

Korea until the 1960s/1970s was predominantly an agricultural society with the majority of population as peasants. However, the name ehwaju seems to have been more frequently used by the aristocracy than the peasant class. The more common widespread name for makkoli was nongju or rather the drink of peasants - nong (농)  or peasant/farmer plus ju (주), drink. The drink was a big part of farming celebrations and particularly important as a drink for gut (exorcisms), fertility ceremonies or any ceremony for that matter, and especially for holding memorial services to the sky.

During Japanese occupation of Korea, however, makkoli was forbidden as a drink. The reasons for forbidding the imbibing of makkoli was to control the population by behavior modification, making them abstemious for probably multiple reasons but mostly so that the rice used in making makkoli could be exported for the colonial powers' personal gain. The theory is that if a power controls the food supply and celebrations of a people, the people will be easier to subjugate.

Marketing of Makkoli Nowadays

Nowadays, there is a lot of diversification of makkoli. Until quite recently, makkoli was considered a drink of the lower class, grandmothers and grandfathers, and people "from the sticks". However, with extensive marketing makkoli is gaining in popularity and young people are starting to also enjoy the drink in the newly introduced flavors:
present marketing of makkoli
chestnut makkoli
black bean makkoli
ginseng makkoli
blackberry makkoli
(many kinds of fruit) makkoli
makkoli cocktail
Makkoli started to be sold to Korean-Americans in the US in 1987, but the industry was very limited. Now, Korea is actively marketing the Korean rice wine to many countries and building up an export clientele. Already it is more widely sold in the US, Canada, Singapore and other countries. Japan, not to be outdone, has a similar product called makkori (マッコリ), the Japanese pronunciation of makkoli, which undermines some of the Korean market as people confuse the Japanese brand with the authentic Korean brand.

Even President Lee Myung Bak has used it as a Blue House banquet drink. Whether his choice of drink for  a banquet was conscious or subconscious promotion of the drink, it was probably aimed to garner support of Koreans by serving such a representative Korean drink.

One of the fairly recent marketing strategies for raising drinking interest in makkoli was to hold a festival and give a prize to whoever could offer the best marketing English name for makkoli to the foreign community. The winner determined by the Korean Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries was "drunken rice". "Mackohol" and "mackelixir" were runner-ups. However, in an 11-country survey "Korean rice wine" was determined to best convey the idea of makkoli. Some netizens pointed out that "drunken rice" is not a suitable anglicization, and in an international context, may reflect poorly on Korean cuisine in general. The name makkoli still sticks.

The Popularity of Makkoli

In former agricultural times, makkoli was the most popular drink of the common people. It was drunk by the peasants after working in the fields, at all ceremonies if it could be had and in jumak or Korean public inns. Although having fallen out of fashion through the years of Japanese control and the subsequent Korean War, it is now being promoted in our modern health-crazed age as a "well-being" drink. (Yes, Korea uses well-being as an adjective instead of a noun.)

Because makkoli has approximately 6-8% alcohol while soju has anywhere from 20-40%, the well-being value of the drink is raising interest in it as a meal accompaniment instead of the harder liquor. Also, makkoli is unfiltered unlike soju and sake (Japanese rice wine) and so it contains lactic acid and some beneficial bacterium found in yogurt. It also has dietary benefits unlike beer which contributes little to health and soju which contributes nothing but a flat-out inebriated buzz. With fiber, vitamins and trace minerals it stands out now as a "healthy" drink. And with the trendier bottling of makkoli in fancier bottles, with brand names and the addition of flavors, makkoli is once again becoming widely accepted in the Korean, as well as the international, community.

I want to thank my students, Kim Yeon Ju and Lim Jun Hwan, for outlining this information and providing the pictures. Makkoli in Wikipedia was also very helpful, among other sites for minor information.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Great work on this post. May I point out one other bit here?