Korean Wine Dreams: Makkoli

Let's talk makkoli. Makko - what? Makkoli (Mock-oh-lee) is Korean rice wine - almost as ubiquitous in Seoul as the infamous cleaning solvent, but more hipster. It's been around forever - try the fourth century - as a traditional farmer's drink, but it's lately become the drink of choice for hipsters across the peninsula. There are tons of makkoli brands, bars and microbreweries throughout Seoul. Interestingly, makkoli is also a traditional "mountain-climbing" drink. It's not unusual to see Korean ajishis (old men) camped out off a path or at the peak enjoying some of this milky white goodness. (Makkoli is only 6-7% alcohol, so in moderation it won't make you fall down the mountain or pass out on the street.)

Makkoli itself is fermented rice. It's opaque and unfiltered, and looks sort of like milk, with a slightly sour taste.  In Korea, you drink makkoli out of bowls, and traditionally it's paired with jeon, a crazy delicious Korean pancake that's made with leeks, vegetables and seafood.

My brother, Sam, has been living in Seoul for the past two years and has become something of a makkoli aficionado and makkoli home brewer. He knows makkoli WAY better than I do, so I've asked him to fill in some of the blanks. Enjoy.

Makkoli -- or makgeoli, or heck, 막걸리, if you're very cool -- is not milk. It has never been milk, nor will it evolve into milk if you bless it with three rubs of Buddha's belly. (Though you're very welcome to pour it over your cereal, anyway). Its (ahem) milky-hued appearance is instead the product of weeks of rotting rice, a bit of wheat cake, water, and love. You're confused. You're still on milk, aren't you. I will explain. 

Until it became the hipster brew of choice in Seoul, makkoli was, in essence, farmer's hooch. It's very easy to make, and takes little care. The primary recipe consists of three basic ingredients: a vast quantity of cooked rice, a daft substance called "nuruk," and water. The amount of rice used varies, but it's typically more than a pedestria rice cooker can produce in one go. Korean rice is best, as it's stickier than most other Asian varieties, but more brittle long-grain rice is fine. If it's a special variety of makkoli, like chestnut or ginseng (two of my favorites), this is when it's added -- while the rice cooks, to infuse the grains.

"Nuruk" requires its own paragraph. I've described it as "wheat cake," but what the heck is that, really. A more technical explanation is provided by the FAO: "Nuruk is wheat, rice, barley (whole grain, grits or flour) with the fermenting microorganisms, Aspergillus, Rhizopus, [and] yeasts packed together into a large cake, and then incubated for about three weeks, dried for two, and aged for about two months." So, uh, basically, it's the stuff that makes the rice ferment. It also looks and crumbles like dirt cobblerf that helps. If it's a sweeter makkoli, some yeast will be added; if it's sour (the better choice), no yeast.

So, once the rice, nuruk and water are mixed by hand in a big plastic tub, it's covered and left to sit and do its thang (with the occasional fondle). Temperature determines the speed of fermentation -- if the mixture is sitting at 18 degrees Celsius, it'll take about a week and a half to look and smell vaguely horrifying. Three layers should form of indeterminate grey poo-poo, and that's when it's ready to strain and serve.

The best brews are natural and don't have any gross-ass aspartame. Unfortunately, most mass-brewed bottles are riddled with artificial sweetener. If you want the real stuff, when choosing your bottle, make sure it doesn't have any 아스파탐 listed in the ingredient, feel me? You're also gonna want to drink it out of a bowl. Just do it. And for the last time, do not ask if it's one-percent or skim, or I will grow a bushy beard and shave in your sink and NEVER clean it up.