Makkoli: Korea's Undiscovered Rice Wine

On a recent visit to Danji, which last week earned itself a star and high praise from the New York Times, the bartender recommended I pair my pajeon (scallion pancake) with a little rice wine. I wasn't in the mood for sake, I told him, but what he served me was very different indeed.

Makkoli is a fermented alcoholic drink from Korea, derived from rice. Like Nigori sake, it's unfiltered and looks milky white in the glass. (But unlike sake it only reaches 6% to 7% alcohol by volume.) Makkoli was originally popular only among farmers in Korea, earning it the nickname nongju — which translates as "farmer's liquor." Danji's chef-owner Hooni Kim wanted to stock it because of its growing popularity in cities, especially among younger consumers.

"It's like a poor man's beer," says Kim. "It's cheaper in Korea than here."

He sells green plastic bottles made by the producer Kooksoondang, one of the only brands available that remains slightly effervescent from the special Nuruk yeast and controlled fermentation process used. (Unlike cheaper brands that use wheat to supplement the rice in the mash and add additives like aspartame to increase the shelf life, Kooksoondang's makkoli tastes like it's straight from the draft tap, which is how it's served in Korea.) It lasts for just two or three months on the shelf, as opposed to a year.

"It's actually really easy to make because it's not filtered," says Kim. "Nobody drank much of it until about five years ago. Then, college kids made it popular again. The same thing happened with soju, like, 20 years ago. Young people mixed it with juice and made cocktails with it. Now, they're doing the same thing with makkoli."

So, is makkoli poised to be the next soju? There are bars in South Korea that boast 20 or 30 different makkoli infusions, and they can be found in the same lively neighborhoods that were once known for their soju bars. In NYC, only a handful of restaurants stock makkoli and it's hard to find in Asian groceries. But with Korean food taking off, a makkoli microtrend may be inevitable.

In Korea, makkoli is often served in a bowl, like soup. Here, where it's only available in bottles, Kim recommends drinking it one of two ways. Because it's unfiltered you can shake it until it's cloudy. Alternatively, let the sediment settle to the bottom of the bottle and just pour out the cider portion, which is clear with a less chewy mouthfeel. Kim likes it especially in the summer, because at only 6% to 7%, you can sip it all day without getting tipsy. It has a muting effect with spicy food. Koreans use rice to balance the salt, soy and spice in food, says Kim. Because rice is the main ingredient in makkoli, it has the same effect.

At Danji, he suggests pairing the Kooksoondang (also spelled Kooksangdang) with the spicy whelk salad with buckwheat noodles or the gochu gajeon. "Now, every big soju company makes one," Kim says of the drink's increased popularity. "I like it because it's so low in alcohol that you can actually wash your food down without getting too hammered." How sensibly civilized!

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