Makgeolli is a traditional Korean alcoholic beverage brewed from rice and a fermentation starter called nuruk. Makgeolli is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in Korea, dating back to the 7th century with some traces even back to the Three Kingdoms era (57 BC to 668 AD). Also known as nongju, meaning “agricultural wine” or “farmer’s wine,” it is a historically affordable drink that was popular among farmers and the poor. Traditionally, this rice wine was home-brewed and served as an everyday drink as well as for special occasions such as weddings.
Makgeolli is traditionally made of just three ingredients: rice, water and nuruk. Nuruk is a grain cake and a unique fermentation starter that contains yeast and bacteria. Nuruk encourages mold growth which produces sugars that break down the rice to produce alcohol. The basic makgeolli recipe involves steaming rice then mixing the cooked rice, water and nuruk. Other grains, such as wheat or barley, can be used in addition to the rice for different characteristics. The mixture is left in clay pots to ferment for about 7-10 days and then filtered.
Because makgeolli is coarsely filtered and naturally fermented, it is best when drunk within a week or two after production. When freshly brewed, it has a milder and creamier taste but acquires a stronger taste over time. As a low-proof drink of six to nine percent alcohol by volume, makgeolli is often considered a “communal beverage” rather than hard liquor. Makgeolli is often poured from a kettle into small metal or ceramic bowls for sipping. This allows the drinker to stir the cloudy rice wine, keeping the sediment from sinking to the bottom. Makgeolli may also be mixed with ice and fruits such as mango and pineapple to make fruit cocktails.
The milky, off-white and lightly sparkling rice wine has a slight viscosity that tastes slightly sweet, tangy, bitter, and astringent. It can also have a fruity, dusty, floral aroma with a bit of chalky texture and chalky sediments which gives it a cloudy appearance. It has low to medium acidity thanks to the natural fermentation and no tannins since it is not made using grapes. The complex and robust flavors of this drink pairs wonderfully with all Korean foods but especially jeon, a savory Korean pancake that comes in different varieties. Because it is lightly sparkling, served cold, and low alcohol, makgeolli makes an ideal daytime and summertime drink.