When I was watching Fantasy Couple 환상의 커플 (2006), it gave me several itches: an itch to eat chajjang myeon (Koreanized Chinese black bean noodles), an itch to learn the Go Stop card game, and an itch to drink makgeolli. The last was the strongest and most impossible itch to satisfy. The drama made makgeolli look so appealing I had to replay many scenes over again because I just couldn’t pay attention to what the actors were saying being so absorbed with what they were drinking and how they were drinking it! It was the first time I saw alcohol stored in a giant kettle, drank from a bowl, and appreciated so much in the way that Han Ye-seul’s character appreciated it.
Of course, I subsequently searched for makgeolli in all the Korean supermarkets I could find, but apparently makgeolli was not exported to the States back then! It was complete torture watching the rest of that drama seeing Oh Ji Ho and company lounging around in their rural seaside town, summer breeze caressing their faces, downing bowl after bowl of refreshing homemade makgeolli.
Traditional makgeolli, from its basic and sparse ingredients to its brewing technique all the way to the drinking experience epitomizes the image of Korean country lifestyle – resourcefulness, localization, patience, cheerfulness, and practicality. Makgeolli uses local grains, is inexpensive to make and purchase, quenches the thirst and hunger, and revives one’s sapping strength. These qualities are not surprising given the origin of makgeolli. This distinctively Korean alcohol was also called nanju or ‘farmer’s liquor’ which hints at its origin. Made from boiled rice or other grains and water, then fermented, makgeolli has a creamy off-white appearance, tickles going down from its slight carbonation, and can be consumed in huge volume before the 6-10% alcohol content sneak attacks. It used to be brewed and consumed primarily by country folks and peasants, but nowadays not only has it been embraced by all Koreans regardless of geography and trade, but because it’s now exported, first to Japan and Australia and beginning of 2010 to the US, it is also copiously enjoyed by those abroad .
In fact, as part of the Korean government’s ambitious campaign to culturally export hanshik (Korean food) as part of the greater hallyu (Korean Wave) phenomenon, makgeolli was given an integral role to play. It has been selected and promoted as the representative alcoholic drink of Korea. To that end, Asiana Airline has started serving makgeolli during its in-flight services throughout its trans-Asian flights. Additionally, to increase makgeolli’s popularity with the younger generation, makgeolli cocktails which add fresh fruits such as pineapple, peaches, and raspberries to the brew, are being served in bars and fine establishments all over Seoul. It’s arguable that Korean dramas – hallyu’s rice and kimchi – are also participating in this campaign. Apart from historical saeguk dramas, which aptly features this traditional drink of the people, modern dramas are also starting to inject makgeolli into the storyline, whether as background setting, cursory prop, or context.
In the drama Gourmet 식객 (2008), Korean food and food culture are showcased through the protagonist Sung Chan’s journey to improve his culinary knowledge and skills in order to save his family’s restaurant a.k.a. Korea’s authoritative showcase of hanshik from becoming another commercial restaurant chain. That mouthwatering journey wouldn’t be complete if makgeolli wasn’t part of the course and education.
Then there is Cinderella’s Sister 신데렐라 언니 (2010), a reinterpretation of the familiar Cinderella story told from a sympathetic stepsister’s point of view. The story is set at a makgeolli making factory owned by Cinderella’s father. Consequently, makgeolli metaphors, makgeolli related anecdotes, and makgeolli transposed moral lessons abound i.e. ‘the yeast of life’ and ‘honest ingredients produces characters’. The quiet, temperature-stable brewery also serves as a haven for the characters in their rocky times of trouble and sadness.
With such compounded effort and support behind makgeolli, it’s not unlikely that future k-drama heroes and heroines will be clinking bowls of makgeolli instead of shots of soju in the near small screen as a reflection of the pop culture. It can happen! In the meantime, for anyone (of drinking age) who hasn’t had the pleasure of sampling a fresh bowl of makgeolli (expiration date crucially important), I highly recommend acclimating oneself to this hearty elixir.