There was a time when heading to the makgeolli bar could only mean a dark and grungy tavern, big tin kettles and huge pours into those quintessential dog bowls. When the rain came down, these kinds of watering holes would be chocked to the gills with people sheltering from the storm, gorging on the comfort of seafood pancakes and bottomless brews. It was like this for so many years that for a long time, such was the only way to enjoy makgeolli. Seared into the collective memory, makgeolli had its reputation defined as the cheap and cheerful people’s drink.
So you can imagine the confusion when a whole new kind of makgeolli hit the scene in slender glass bottles, with stylish designs and a much heftier price tag than the usual bottles at the corner store. Makgeolli a drink of repute? Scoffs and guffaws echoed around the nation. But, in fact, makgeolli has gone through many incarnations over the past decade, steadily chipping away at the outdated notion that it is just a farmer’s drink.
Let’s take it back a few steps. Jumaks, or taverns, date back to the Joseon dynasty when people would visit their local to get a bowl of whatever was fresh at the time. You may have seen dramas where groups of gnarly looking men wander into the garden of a hanok, set themselves down at a table, and demand a bowl of rice and a carafe. Such was makgeolli in the old school tavern style. The same principle still applies today to many ‘Jumaks’ around the peninsula, where the nameless brew gets poured liberally into a kettle and plonked down at the table without so much as a menu perusal. The stark difference from then and now is the strong likelihood your modern Jumak host simply poured a plastic bottle into your kettle, and called it ‘House Makgeolli’.
The Jumak style dominated the makgeolli scene for much of the past century, a place of rough and ready refuge for the stressed out masses. But in 2007 all that was about to change, as the Korean Wave was taking no global prisoners. Strategically placed advertising campaigns for makgeolli began appearing in Japan, endorsed by the K-pop star de jour, and exports skyrocketed. What is now referred to as the Makgeolli Boom was the intense new popularity makgeolli enjoyed overseas, even as domestic market remained more or less the same.
Not one to be left on the sidelines, the makgeolli bar scene in Korea began a swift and decisive turn for the trendy. For the first time you could see colorful slushies and fruity makgeolli cocktails, creating a whole new genre of makgeolli drinking. The first steps were being taken to making makgeolli cool, and the bar scene was pandering to a hip and younger crowd. But of course it wasn’t long before makgeolli suffered the same fate as anything Honey Butter: it just stopped being new and shiny.
All the while trendy makgeolli bars were luring their patrons with milk jugs and hipster serving ware, a new era of fine dining with makgeolli had been growing. Admittedly not on the back of makgeolli alone, the culinary scene in Korea has, for lack of a better term, exploded. With a growing appreciation for higher quality cuisine, Korean food finds itself in the spotlight with an emphasis on quality of ingredients and skill of fermentation. To that end, top food needs top drinks, and the scene is set for small batch hand-crafted brews.
Bolstered by the growing variety in terms of quality makgeolli, takju, cheongju, and soju, Korean restaurants with reputations for excellence are now able to pair food with equally respectable Korean alcohol. These bars and restaurants are, more often than not, owned and operated by chefs who are personally connected to brewers and other members of the traditional alcohol community. If you strike up a conversation with one, don’t be surprised if tastings of their own homemade brews come eagerly to your table.
Gratefully, we now find ourselves in an era with a greater field of choice. If someone suggests heading to a makgeolli bar, it doesn’t necessarily mean graffiti walls and seemingly endless pours, although that experience itself should definitely still be a regular feature. But if discovering something beyond the casual is on the agenda, finding places to do so are not so much of a challenge if you know where to look.
Improving the Korean traditional alcohol industry is not just reliant on the hard work and dedication of the brewers. Makgeolli bars play a pivotal role in introducing consumers, old and new, to the many changes and new products appearing on the scene. We would love to say it is an easy sell. However, it’s not uncommon to be in one of the more up-market bars and still see tables littered with green bottles of soju. While many customers might not bat an eyelid at dropping alarming coin for a bottle of whiskey, paying twenty or thirty thousand won for Korean alcohol still doesn’t seem to sit well.
But this won’t stop the dogged persistence of these bars and restaurants, willing to keep striving for better in the name of Korean traditional alcohol. So next time you are throwing around ideas of where to get your weekend drinks, consider makgeolli and all its growing possibilities.
Far and away some of the best makgeolli-pared food in town, Olsoo is an example of a chef owned and operated bar. His menu regularly changes with seasonality, and he is respected in the Korean traditional alcohol community for his skill and dedication. The prices here are higher than one would expect to find in the Hongdae area, but they are surely justified.
Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong 331-18
Nuruk Namu (누룩 나무)
A staple bar on the Makgeolli Mamas & Papas rotation, Nuruk Namu has never disappointed. In a back alley of Insadong, this extremely popular and often crowded bar has some of the best makgeolli selections in town, and the food is comforting and affordable.
Jongro-gu, Kwanhun-dong 118-19
White Bear (백곰 막걸리 양조장 & 펍)
Newly opened in the Apgujeong area, White Bear must be mentioned for its sheer range. A menu boasting over 200 different Korean alcohols, this bar is run by one of the hardest working members of the Korean traditional alcohol industry.
Gangnam-gu, Sinsa-dong 657-7