Matters of the spirit: Making makgeolli

The next Korean wave could be K-Sool, introducing us to the wonderful world of Korean alcoholic spirits. And if a recent makgeolli-appreciation workshop at the Korean Embassy in New Delhi is any indication of what is in store for us, bring it on, please!

The first and only time I’ve been carded, or asked to show my ID in a bar was nine years ago in a bar in K-town in NYC. As my government issue ID couldn’t prove how old I was, I was politely asked to leave. Oscar Song, my Korean friend and I, dropped into another more amenable bar, that was thronged with young Koreans drinking soju out of a large watermelon shell. A quick drink later, we were off to dine with the rest of my family in a Korean restaurant, one of the very few restaurants that were still allowed to have in-table grills. That was also my first acquaintance with makgeolli, a quite delicious rice wine from Korea, that had a slight effervescence to it.

I’d first met Hyun Park, when he was managing Hong Kong Club at the Andaz, Delhi. When he invited me to the Korean Embassy in New Delhi for a DIY makgeolli experience under the guidance of master brewer Nara Yun, I was only too pleased to accept, given my previous acquaintance with the spirit. Even better was that this was going to be followed by a tasting of a wide array of Korean spirits.

We’re a small group of six people including sommelier Magandeep Singh. To inspire us before we make our own batch of rice wine, Nara Yun — interestingly enough her handle on Instagram is Yun Ju Dang, Yun from her surname and Ju Dang meaning ‘someone who enjoys drinks and can hold a lot of drinks’ — makes a fresh batch of it for us to drink first. A milky liquid trickles through a muslin cloth into a large bowl, as Yun powerfully kneads every last drop of wine from a semi-solid matter that has been prepared by her in advance of our visit. “It’s literally handmade,” Hyun puns as we wait with our glasses. Our appetite whetted and now excited by the prospect of making our own, we’re guided to a long table laden with everything we need.

Makgeolli is an effervescent korean rice wine, traditionally had from a bowl. Image: shutterstock/nitiphonphat.
Makgeolli is an effervescent Korean rice wine, traditionally had from a bowl. Image: Shutterstock/Nitiphonphat.

Our two main raw materials are a big bowl of Thai sticky rice into which we mix nuruk, a fermentation starter. Nuruk is a tightly packed round of wheat on which mould or yeast grows. It’s been suitably crumbled for us to use, and we mix it along with the rice and a litre and a half of water. It’s an effort that we need to carry out carefully, as we focus on separating the grains of rice, and soaking the liquid into the entire mixture, so that all the moisture is absorbed. To this mixture we also add some flavourings, namely some pine leaves, pine powder and dried yuzu (a kind of citrus fruit). Once we’re done, we’re given two plastic bottles each that we fill with the mixture, and then wrap a muslin cloth around, tied by a rubber band. As you may have guessed, we get to take this back home, for later consumption, but more about that later.

Back in the day, as rice was expensive and scarce, nuruk was primarily made from wheat. Only the royals had access to rice-based nuruk, that is also present on the table in the form of tightly compressed white balls. This rice-based nuruk is used to prepare a delicious liquid dessert called Ewhaju, a form of Takju, a generic word describing all forms of cloudy rice wines. That is the first thing served to us as we start our tasting. It’s thick and creamy and as Yun explains to us in Korean (translated by Hyun), very difficult to make. The recipe for this dates back over 800 years.

We’re tasting Ewhaju from Yesul Brewery. Yesul literally means a work of art and sul means alcohol, so a clever play on words by them. The word Ewhaju comes from Ewha or the pear flower, and although Ewhaju isn’t made with the flowers it’s made during spring when the pear flowers blossom. It’s at 9% ABV, and we’re told retails in Seoul at the equivalent of USD 10 for a 140 ml container.  

Nuruk (left) is the fermentation starter for makgeolli; and (right) some optional flavourings.
Nuruk (left) is the fermentation starter for makgeolli; and (right) some optional flavourings.

Next up for us from a brewery called Bohae is a product called Matchsoon, a plum wine which has bits of 24 carat gold floating in it. It has a lovely aroma of plums that carry on to the palate, and one could very well imagine that you’ve bitten into a juicy fermented plum. Bohae is one of the oldest working breweries in Korea, dating back to 1950 and grow their own plums. Hyun tells us that in Korea it’s seen as an easy drinking product for casual occasions like a barbeque, for example. This one is at 14% ABV and retails for about USD 10 back home.

Eating and drinking always go together in Korea, says Hyun. In recent years, soft power from Korea in the form of first K-Pop and movies like Parasite and shows like Squid Game has been on the rise. It’s logical, therefore, to build on these gains by promoting Korean spirits under the umbrella of K-Sool, with the Sool here translating into the phrase ‘alcoholic beverages’.

Nuruk mixed with sticky rice (left); and the mixture transferred to bottles where it will ferment. Straining the mixture will yield makgeolli.
Nuruk mixed with sticky rice (left); and the mixture transferred to bottles where it will ferment. Straining the mixture will yield makgeolli.

From plum wine we move to soju, a style of spirit that I’ve definitely heard of before, with Jinro, a popular brand, often figuring in the list of the world’s top-selling brands. Soju is a distilled spirit that is made from a grain source, most often made with rice, and sometimes with wheat also. It’s also a spirit that like vodka is open to interpretation and flavour. We start our triumvirate of soju tasting with a brand called Lee Gangju.

An iconic spirit of the Jeolla-do region of Korea, it uses a recipe that originates in North Korea. The base spirit for this is soju made from rice, that is then redistilled with four main aromatics — pear, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric. There is sweetness to it, with spice too. The word Lee Gangju, in fact, originates from the Korean words for pear (Lee) and ginger (Gang). This one is at 25% ABV, and in what appears to be a hallmark of alcohol in Korea, comes in a beautiful ceramic bottle, that retails for USD 30 back home. Hyun confirms that in spite of it being a very traditional spirit, it’s consumed freely in Korean bars and restaurants, either on the rocks, or in a cocktail.

Korean spirit producers appear to take great care of their raw material source, even going so far as to own it. Our next sample, a wheat-based soju called Menge Jin Maek, is yet another example of this practice as they grow their own wheat. The recipe for this too is an age-old one dating back to the 16th century, another fine example of how they’ve preserved their old recipes and recreated them for a modern era. Jin Maek brings to mind a rye whiskey, and on the nose the wheat bursts through, almost like being in a wheat silo. It’s a spirit amenable to being sipped or drunk as a highball with ginger ale. Expensive though, in comparison to what we’ve drunk so far, clocking in at USD 50 in Seoul. Jin Maek is also a double-gold award winner at the San Francisco Spirit Competition.   

We move on to a typical rice-based soju, made by Hwayo, one of the largest commercial distillers in South Korea. Hwayo goes one further in backward integration as they own their own pottery also, the source for the beautiful ceramic bottles in which Hwayo is presented to us to taste.

We end our tasting with what I can probably best describe as Korean Calvados, a spirit called Chusa 40, that is an apple brandy, aged in oak barrels. The winery owns the apple orchard, and crushed apples are fermented into a cider and then distilled. It has a chocolatey and vanilla taste to it. It’s at an ABV of 40% and also retails for ~USD 50 back home. The next day at a function organised by the Korean Embassy at Delhi’s Leela Palace, we also taste an Old Fashioned made with Chusa, and most delicious it is.

And now back to the unfiltered makgeolli that we took back home. Twice a day I stir up the contents with a long spoon, so that the liquid is evenly distributed through the bottle. After three days, I strain it out into a large bowl, and then bottle it, giving me a litre of makgeolli, that I store in my fridge. It has a slight effervescence to it, and is lovely to drink on its own, or as I find, with tonic too, or half tonic half soda. Hyun informs us that makgeolli-based tourism has taken off in South Korea, with lots of people going through a similar experience as we had at soju facilities in South Korea.

All in all, a lovely immersive experience into the culture and habits of South Korea, and brought alive by the tactile experience of making one of their iconic spirits ourselves. One sees too few of these beverages unfortunately in India, and if we do, the price can act as a constraint. Definitely hope to see a K-Sool wave too here!

Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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