Marvelous Makgeolli Madness...

For the uninitiated, Makgeolli(막걸리) is a milky white rice wine with an alcohol content generally ranging from 6~8%. Given its slightly malty flavor and low alcohol content I've always considered it a suitable substitute for Korean beer, which until the last couple of years was the same weak dog piss that it has always been. I generally preferred 막걸리 in large part due to the notion that because it was unfamiliar to me I had not developed a taste for the good stuff. This as opposed to beer for which I have become quite the snobbish connoisseur over the years (as can be guessed by my lambasting Korean brew).

So, my girlfriend suggested to me recently that I should go about taste-testing all the 막걸리 I could find and write about them. Not only would this make a (hopefully) entertaining read, but also it just might give me a more discerning appreciation for a fermented beverage I am already quite fond of. Sure I may have had a few kinds of 막걸리 already, but keep in mind my first encounter with this stuff was the same as many others:

Do you know the Makgeolli Man that lives on Hongdae Lane?

So here we go, a nowhere near complete list of various kinds of interesting brew that can be found around the peninsula:

I got this one when company was over, at first I thought this weird stuff was made with corn (an ingredient that is used unexpectedly in Korea). Thankfully I was corrected that it is in fact brewed with pine nuts. Also apparently made in Gapyeong(가평) an area in Gangwondo(강원도) that I am quite fond of for both camping and motorcycling. So the taste? well it wasn't quite as nutty as the chestnut 막걸리 that I've had, but it was reminiscent of it. It did have a slight fragrance or hint of pine freshness to it. Not overpowering at all, but that's the problem; as it doesn't taste like it has been mixed with a little Pine Sol, you might just think this was normal 막걸리 in a fancy looking bottle.

This bottle of Ssal Makgeolli(쌀막걸리) also seems to have been made in 가평, and is a form of the beverage made with rice husks. Personally, I don't quite understand why this makes it special. Sure both the color and taste may be a bit darker, but it is not outside of the spectrum that i would expect from other variants of 마걸리, It tastes similar to the Wolmae(월매) discussed below.

Seoul brand, Saeng Makgeolli(생막걸리) This stuff has the benefit of being the Cass beer of 막걸리 without the downside of being Cass-esq in quality. This stuff is plain and simple, a touch on the sweet side, and a little cloudy and grainy depending on the batch. Hell, I've seen this for sale next to the Seoul brand milk in some stores(imagine the confusion there for some FOBs!; Makgeolli with cereal?). While this is good stuff, lets say that if I was to introduce a friend of mine who had never partook in a bowl of it before, I wouldn't have them drink this. I find this taste requires a bit more experience that the typical western palette is likely to lack.

Walmae Makgeolli(월매막걸리) Is certainly a favorite of mine. This may be due to how common it is however, while other rarer offerings are a more pleasant experience. The sweetness of this varient is toned down a lot, and there is certainly a malty taste to it. This stuff also has much higher carbonation than other variants. For these reasons this is probably a 막걸리 suited well to beer-drinkers who want to broaden their horizons.

From the lofty mountain peaks of Jirisan(지리산) comes this smooth ambrosia in a cool lavender color. Thanks to my girlfriend for locating this one. It really is fantastic. It's not as sweet as I expected, but the blueberry taste is awesome and naturally compliments the milky grainyness of the 마걸리. This one would totally go on my favorites list if it wasn't entirely devoid of carbonation. Non-carbonated 막걸리 is still a little strange to me even though there are many types that are like this.

Another creation brewed in the mountains of Korea. Here the attempt was to mix black beans(검은콩) into the 마걸리... And well... it certainly works and mixes in well, lending the beverage a darker color and a more earthy flavor. Some of the other Ssal(쌀) varieties have a similar level of grainyness. With this and its low carbonation the unique mouth-feel is lends to the whole experience. I feel however that it may be an acquired taste for some.

This stuff is remarkably similar to the Walmae Makgeolli(월매막걸리) that I talked about earlier. Honestly I'd be pretty hard pressed to tell the difference between the two if they were poured alongside one another. If given the option I'd go for the Walmae, but honestly I think that is just because it is available in slightly bigger bottles...

Like the Black Bean Makgeolli(검은콩막걸리) This Deodeok Makgeolli(더덕막걸리) comes from Bulgok Mountain(불곡산) just north of Seoul. This brew however is rather different than its brethren. A very active flavor reminiscent of melons is waiting to slink across your taste buds as you pour a glass of this stuff. It is probably more flavorful than any of the other brews listed here, and while its slightly citrusy flavor may be a put-off at first, with a few more glasses you'll be convinced. And many more glasses can indeed follow from the 1.2 liter bottle, be sure you drink this with a friend, unless you want to end up as tipsy as I was.


I remember I first saw this stuff advertised in whilst I lived in Incheon 4 years ago. I remember at that time it was nothing to write home about, just another variety of 생 Makgeolli really. This time though, whether my tastes have changed or whether they changed their recipe, this brew certainly has a more defined flavor. A pleasantly fragrant bouquet mixed with the medium level of carbonation that I quite appreciate makes this stuff certainly worth trying. It's very well rounded. The kind of drink I would give to my mother if I wanted to introduce her to Korean rice wine.

Made by the same company as the previous, this 생막걸리 would trick you a little. You see, to me 생 is almost a synonym for 일반. Basically, general, no-frills, standard product. That's not a bad thing, but with a name like that I didn't expect the deep earthy tones and nutty flavor I experienced with this. It might even be a bit on the harsh side, requiring a meat based meal to properly compliment it.   

I will probably continue to update this as I encounter more interesting makgeolli flavors floating about the peninsula. Of note I seem to remember some 귤 and 땅콩 flavored stuff that was available on Jeju... If I can manage to snag a bottle of that or if anyone can recommend any interesting brew let me know.

A slightly floral taste as one might expect from the art on the label. Slightly carbonated, and with a relatively thick and creamy consistency. Not exactly my cup of 술, but certainly a fine brew for someone who has a better appreciation of the more delicate flavors that makgeolli can have.

Nureungji(누릉지) is the slightly burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of a the pot after cooking it. This crispy substance that might be discarded in other places is quite an appreciated part of cuisine out here. Also apparently it makes for a pretty decent makgeolli. As might be expected, this brew has a deeper smokey flavor that I imagine is the result of using overcooked rice in the mixture. A little on the hearty side, I liked this a lot and imagined it would go well with a meat-heavy meal.

I found this stuff before embarking on my summit of Jirisan(지리산) last week. Surprisingly expensive (for makgeolli... it's still ridiculously cheap at 2,500 a bottle), but this stuff tasted fantastic. It was quite worth the extra price for the quality of this brew. It was quite well balanced with a natural medium carbonation. A little like the Walmae makgeolli I wrote about above, only this stuff is quite a bit more full bodied and less watery. I would buy this again if it was sold local to Seoul.  

From the same trip to Jirisan I also found this bottle of local makgeolli. I'm not sure if there was any special claim to fame from this stuff (maybe made from the water of Jirisan) I admit my Korean is not up to snuff enough to figure out anything else besides the usual advertisement of this being a draft beverage made with rice husks. It tasted reasonably well, its flavor being a bit stronger than some I had tried. There was a light note of sourness perhaps due to some citrusy herb, or simply a wilder strain of yeast than is usually used. Not a makgeolli that I regret buying, but also not one that I would have again if other options were present. I may have gotten an off batch however, so give this one a try if you ever get the chance.


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