Fine Produce Wine

Makgeolli: Korea’s nectar of the people – A Comprehensive Guide

A traditional, low-alcohol beverage, makgeolli is a cloudy rice wine that bridges the gap between the rural simplicity and the modern sophisticated palate of Korea. Born from the fermentation of rice, water, and nuruk, a wheat-based starter, it is an embodiment of Korea’s agrarian roots and traditions, known for its refreshing acidity and its unfiltered complex flavour profile.

This article delves into the historical journey of makgeolli, its brewing process, and the many varieties of rice wines that colour the landscape of Korea. Additionally, we will explore the modern adaptations and innovations that have expanded its reach and popularity, culminating with our handpicked recommendations for those seeking premium makgeolli experiences.

Brewing Korean rice wineThe range of takju varietiesOur handpicked recommendations

Historical journey and its significance to Koreans

The genesis of makgeolli can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms period. Its popularity became clear during the Goryeo Dynasty where it became the comforting low-alcohol beverage for the labouring class.

Yet, the recent journey of makgeolli is a mirror to societal transformations in Korea. It experienced a decline in popularity during the late 20th century, reflecting Korea’s brisk westernisation. However, the dawn of the 21st century saw a resurgence, fuelled by a revitalized interest in traditional culture and a yearning for authentic, locally-sourced products. This renaissance underscores a nostalgic return to roots and a renewed respect for Korea’s culinary heritage.

Brewing process: art and science

The production of makgeolli is similar to that of Japanese sake. At its core, the process involves the fermentation of rice, water, and nuruk—a wheat-based starter, similar to koji. This alchemy, sensitive to the proportions of its components and the conditions of fermentation, allows for a wide range of taste profiles to be crafted. The choice of rice and nuruk, the grain-to-nuruk-to-water ratio, and the use of sweeteners all contribute to the final symphony of flavours.

The journey commences with the careful selection and washing of locally-grown, high-quality rice, which is then soaked and steamed, preparing it for fermentation. The next essential ingredient is nuruk which invites a multitude of moulds and yeasts into the mix. Ideally prepared within the same brewery, this fermented wheat starter propels the metamorphosis of the rice into makgeolli. The moulds convert the starch into sugars, ready for yeast consumption and subsequent alcohol production. To tailor the resulting flavour profiles, breweries sometimes introduce carefully selected yeast strains – a strategy mirrored in the creation of Japanese sake.

The mixture of rice and nuruk is then introduced to a fermentation vessel (onggi) along with water, left to ferment for 10 to 20 days. The brewer attentively monitors the fermentation process, with the telltale sounds of pops and fizzles of CO2 signalling a successful brew.

Makgeolli’s Many Faces: Varieties and comparisons

In the wide landscape of rice wines, makgeolli is categorised as takju, or “cloudy rice wine,” setting it apart from cheongju—a clear, filtered counterpart comparable to Japanese sake. While takju and cheongju share the common ingredient of rice, the coarser or finer filtering of the solids result in distinctive profiles. Makgeolli‘s charm lies in its density, cloudiness and complexity, akin to an unfiltered wheat beer, while cheongju, like a lustrous and light lager, boasts a more precise and clear flavour profile.

While cheongju feels very similar to Japanese sake, takju is one of our favourite discoveries from our trip to Korea. There is nothing quite like it. In Japan, its equivalent – nigori, had been banned in the 19th century and the most of the brewing techniques were forgotten, whereas in Korea it survived as a popular homemade beverage. Takju can range from a dense, milky consistency to a yoghurt-like texture, but it always carries a refreshing acidity – a trait that sets it apart from most rice wines. Its overall higher levels of lactic acid and especially the carbonic acid found in sparkling makgeolli, create a well-balanced beverage that can harmonise with a broad range of dishes.

Elluyeop Pyunjoo, our favourite cheongju. Photo taken at Kwonsooksoo, Seoul.

The higher alcohol levels and clarity of cheongju have historically given this clear wine a more aristocratic treatment. Meanwhile, takju and makgeolli were considered as inferior alcohol for peasants, makgeolli being the most rustic version. In fact, basing quality solely on alcohol levels, many people deem takju to be makgeolli when alcohol per volume is under 10%, even if by definition they both follow the same brewing process.

However, in our opinion, alcohol content is not the definitive measure of a fine wine. This approach discounts the richness and balance of flavours that can be achieved in wines with lower alcohol content. It’s a straightforward affair to increase alcohol levels—distil further or introduce more glutinous rice into the fermentation mix1. Indeed, if alcohol content dictated quality, Korea’s ubiquitous one-dollar bottles of soju would be the obvious choice.

Moreover, the pursuit of higher alcohol levels in takju require more glutinous rice and result in a denser texture that is harder to pair and lacks balance. For those seeking acidity, balance and complexity, we have found that makgeolli with alcohol per volume between 6 to 10% falls into a sweet spot that can truly complement a meal. 

Adaptation and innovation

Originally, makgeolli had a short lifespan, as it was sold fresh and required refrigeration. Similar to namazake in Japan, unpasteurised takju would continue to ferment in the bottle, altering its flavour over time, hence its consumption window was typically limited to 10 days post-bottling.

Yet as the beverage landscape evolved, so too did makgeolli. Now available in both pasteurised and unpasteurised versions, it caters to a broader audience. The unpasteurized variant, teeming with active yeast and lactobacillus, offers a smooth, refreshing experience, while the pasteurized version provides a uniform taste and longer shelf life.

Sadly, makgeolli is hard to find outside Korea. As far as we know, most exports go to Japan. There are some new breweries emerging in Europe and the US, but for the rest of the world, the best way to get some makgeolli is to make it yourself following homemade recipes.

Our recommendations when on the look for premium makgeolli

Boksoondoga became our clear favourite due to its beautiful effervescence. It pairs very well with food, the sweeter versions are perfect for dishes with some heat whereas the dry versions complement seafood extremely well.

On the thicker side, our favourite is the popular Haechang makgeolli. This is the one you want with fried foods like panjeon or bindatteok.

Boksoondoga – Original
Nose:Aromatic, notes of yellow apples, yeast and dairy.
Palate:Very effervescent mousse. Notes of apples, honey and white flowers. The finish is more lactic.
Structure:Crisp acidity, sweet, soft fine tannic texture. Medium body, medium alcohol (6%).

Boksoondoga – Red Rice
Nose:Medium intensity. Notes of red cherries and cream.
Palate:Beautiful pink colour. Similar effervescence to the original. Mild notes of red cherries, honey and yogurt.
Structure:Crisp acidity, sweet, soft fine tannic texture. Medium body, medium alcohol (6%).

Boksoondoga – Super Dry
Nose:Low intensity. While carbonated there are notes of yeast, but mostly notes of liquid yogurt.
Palate:Very effervescent mousse. Very light and refreshing attack that could serve as a replacement for aperitif sparkling wines. Savoury notes of yogurt, reminiscent of mango lassi, but without the mango. Perhaps also a floral hint.
Structure:High acidity, dry, soft fine tannic texture. Medium body, medium alcohol (6.5%).

Baedoga – Limited Edition 10%
Nose:Medium intensity. Aroma of alcoholic fermentation and yogurt.
Palate:Viscous and denser that usual. Among the yogurt-like notes, the predominant aroma is of green melon.
Structure:Medium acidity, off-dry, dusty particle residue and medium tannic feel. High alcohol (10%) and very dense body.

Haechang Makgeolli 9
Nose:Medium intensity. Yellow pear and red apple notes. As it warms up an enticing kefir note appears.
Palate:This is rich and dense, but not as much as Baedoga. Lactic and fruity notes dominate the flavour profile: kefir and yellow pear. Despite having 10.2% alcohol, this makgeolli is nicely balanced.
Structure:Crisp acidity, off-dry, soft velvety tannins, full body, high alcohol. Long fruity finish.

Naroo Makgeolli (11.5%)
Nose:Heady aroma of fermentation (floral), which blows off with time. Medium intensity. Notes of overripe apples and cantaloupe melon.
Palate:Very fruity palate, with the notes confirming the nose. Viscous, slightly more than Haechang (and less crisp) but less than Baedoga and there is acidity to give it some balance. Most expensive of all samples, since the bottle only holds 500ml. A touch of nurungji flavour at the end too.
Structure:Crisp acidity, off-dry, soft velvety tannins, full body, very high alcohol. Very long fruity finish.
  1. Glutinous rice complex carbohydrates eventually yield more sugar, and thus more alcohol.


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