Makkolli is not a Rice Wine, Dammit!

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Makkolli in a wine glass
Credit: The Wall Street Journal

There are times I think the promoters of Korean food really have their heads firmly stuck in their posteriors when they promote makkolli as a rice wine. It shows an ignorance of makkolli, an ignorance of wine, and an ignorance of alcohol in general. The only reason I think that the promoters want to promote it as a wine is to make it sound high class and pretentious.

Which makkolli is anything but!

In fact, the English term “wine” is protected by law in many places around the world, and makkolli doesn’t fit in those laws. Yet all that aside, it doesn’t do justice to what is a phenomenal brew. It should be respected. It shouldn’t be a round peg being forced into a square hole. Here is why makkolli is not a rice wine but is closer to being a rice beer.

Wine comes from fruit (mostly)

Wine is a process of natural fermentation from the yeast and sugars in fruit, particularly grapes. Rice beverages get their alcohol from starch that is then converted into sugars and mixed with water. In fact, rice is sometimes used in the making of barley and wheat beers because it’s a grain. You never hear of rice being used in making wine.

On the etymology front, the word “wine” comes from the Old English win, which comes from the Proto-Germanic winam, which comes from the Latin vinum. The Online Etymology Dictionary basically says that the roots for “wine” and “vine” come from a lost Mediterranean language word. The word “wine” has always been associated with things grown on a vine. Last I checked, rice does not grow on a vine. Now the origin of the word “beer” is fuzzy, but it does cross paths and has associations with words for “brew.” And makkolli is a brewed product.

Alcohol content

“But wait,” you may say, “Sake is made from rice and is called a ‘rice wine.’ And what about barleywine?”

Good point. And experts have been working to change that too. It’s not appropriate to call sake a “rice wine” either. It’s a grain alcohol that is brewed and prepared more akin to beer than wine. I say more akin. Barley and wheat beers have a two-step fermentation process where sake has a one-step process.

Regarding barleywine, it’s called so because its alcohol content is close to wine, but to quote good ole Wikipedia, “Since it is made from grain rather than fruit, it is, in fact, a beer.”

Barleywine is a “wine” about as much as head cheese is a cheese. The closest argument anyone can give for saying sake and barleywine are wines is that they have a wine-like alcohol content, which makkolli has not. It’s between 6 and 8% alcohol, which is closer to an ale. So you can’t lump makkolli in with sake in this category and call it a wine.

Aging

Certain wines can improve with aging. That is why the vintage is printed on the bottle. You would never hear of anyone looking at the plastic makkolli bottle, saying, “Oh, this makkolli is from 2008. That was a good year.”

The reason is that makkolli, like beer, has an early peak time. Then it degrades–quickly. I’ve been told it has an even shorter shelf life than beer, even though makkolli producers are working on ways of extending it.

Seriously? Credit: Happy World

Historical use

Also known as nongju because of its association with farmers (nongbu). It was a drink that could be gulped to quench a thirst from a day working in fields. It contained nutrients to give the farmers energy for a long day. Beer has a similar historical use. It was drunk on the farms in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and America as both a thirst quencher and, well, a source of food. “Liquid bread.” Even though wine can be best in European countrysides, it wasn’t drunk in the fields unless it was watered down heavily.

In short, wine you sip. Beer and makkolli you gulp.

So what is it?

Well, let’s see. It’s made from grain. It has a low alcohol content. It has a short shelf life. It was traditionally used as a nutritious thirst quencher for farmers. It’s carbonated. It’s gulped and not sipped. It’s basically a beer–or to be more precise, an ale. The one significance difference is its riceness. It doesn’t need to be malted like barley beer.

Technicalities aside, it’s all about perception. When one is told they are going to drink a wine, they have certain expectations. When told they are going to drink a beer, they have others. For people who have had makkolli, it fits in more with the properties of beer than of wine. To call it otherwise is at best ignorant and at worst deceptive.

“Who cares,” you may say. Well–why bother classifying anything in the first place? If you’re going to classify something then be as accurate as possible. Don’t take the lazy route and call everything made from rice “rice wine.” That’s more marketing speak from promoters and government officials who–again–are too ashamed of their own cultural products to call them for what they are. They have to elevate them. Remember that despite what this story says, the government promoters ignored makkolli as a low-class beverage until they noticed that young Japanese and Korean hipsters were drinking it. Then they took it over and put it in frilly clothes by tossing it into stemmed wine glasses and wine carafes.

I call bull. It’s pretentious posturing from a few insecure people still stuck in a colonial mentality of needing to impress whom they perceive as highly civilized.

Makkolli is a rice ale. And it’s awesome!

UPDATE

Here is a good Tumblr post on the subject by The Makgeolli Diaries.

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23 thoughts on “Makkolli is not a Rice Wine, Dammit!”

  1. A rice beer? Like Kirin?
    And what of ginger wine? Are we supposed to call that ginger beer now, even though ginger beer is completely different?

    Reply
  2.  Kinda up in the air on that one since ginger is not a grain. Besides, as stated, things like barleywine and, well, root beer and ginger beer are names, not descriptions. The issue is when imprecise or deceptive language is used to describe a product.

    Reply
  3. I totally agree, having brewed both beer and wine.  I’m looking forward to brewing my first makkoli as soon as the weather changes.  If the marketers had been paying attention, they’d have noticed that there’s a huge rise in both the perception and the use of beer here in the US in recent years, with even the introduction of “beer sommeliers” who specialize in recommending beer and food pairings to diners at up-scale restaurants.  It’s inexpensive enough to be in anyone’s reach, and it is great with Korean food.  It’s my favorite discovery of 2012, so far.  And it is lovely drunk from a ceramic bowl, which I can’t say about too many other things.  Yum!

    Reply
  4. Here in Brazil, sake is sake. Not wine nor beer. And probably makkoli would be called Korean sake, like Shaxiong-ju is called sometimes, Chinese sake. But hell, I bet it would infuriate some Korean nationalists…

    Reply
    • That would be a closer description–a bit. This post was aimed at the promoters who have been calling makkolli a rice wine mostly out of pretension and just using “rice wine” as a catch-all for any rice alcohol. I’ve found that to someone doesn’t have a clue what makkolli is, describing it as a rice beer or ale would better prepare them for what’s in store.

      Reply
    • no offense, but yea it would. I know Korean is hard to pronounce but it’s really ignorant for people to call japanese sake “sake” and not even try to say chinese/korean products because it looks too complicated to pronounce or other various reasons

      Reply
  5. Joe, Fantastic article that clarifies a great deal. Much closer to ale, if we need to make a comparison at all. Since falling in love with makgolli I lived in Seoul in the mid-90s, I have struggled to describe makgolli to friends. You have done an excellent (and much needed) job.

    Reply
  6. Great article, thanks. I am the importer of Makkoli for Montreal, Canada, and that classification has a big impact on the price. Because it is classified as a wine instead of something closer to a beer, each bottle cost 2-3$ more (price is set by SAQ, our state liquor monopoly), which makes a big difference on the end price in restaurants. I am currently negotiating with SAQ to change the classification, but the brand actually promote the product as “korean traditional rice wine”, which doesn’t make it easier.

    Reply
  7. If you are going to quibble over semantics, “Grain” is technically the “Fruit” of a “Grass.” Fruit = fertilized seed-bearing ovary of a plant. Grain = seed bearing fertilized ovary of a grass plant.

    So you actually shouldn’t be pushing this kind of distinction too much.

    Wine is Wine.
    Beer is Beer.
    Ale is Ale.

    Makgeolli is a “Rice Wine” same as Sake.

    “Rice Wines” are obviously not “Wines” and nobody is pretending they are. Nobody is popping a bottle of sake or makgeolli to pour into a wine glass and pretending that it’s a great vintage.

    Reply

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