Your Next Cocktail Could Use Some Sparkling Korean Rice Wine
Walk into an American bar and you probably won't find makgeolli. The milky-white, sparkling Korean rice wine is tangy and sweet, and wildly versatile when it comes to mixing cocktails. Interest in makgeolli will peak every now and then, typically after some articles are published in American news outlets, as Eater put it. But makgeolli shouldn’t be cast off as a trend, or eschewed for other rice-distilled spirits like soju or sake simply because they’re more well-known.
Like a natural wine or craft beer your bartender might refer to as “funky,” makgeolli is unique. Its name translates to “roughly filtered,” and it's made of water, rice, and nuruk, a Korean fermentation starter. Depending on the fermentation process, makgeolli’s flavor can slant anywhere from sweet and floral to sour and bitter. Traditional makgeolli is 12 to 16 percent alcohol, while more pasteurized versions are 5 to 6 percent. While it can be hard to find at many high-end cocktail spots in the US, even if they specialize in Korean spirits, there are folks in the drinks industry who'd love to revitalize the centuries-old drink.
“Makgeolli is and has been extremely popular in Korea for a long time,” said Alberto Lazo, who works on the drinks program for Windrose, a new Korean fusion restaurant in New York City. “It has grown from the ‘farmer’ and old man's drink to a favorite of the younger generations in Korea with the increase of more sophisticated brewing techniques being adapted by craft brewers in Korea.”
Lazo told me that as Korean cuisine increases in popularity in the US, Korean beverages and drinking culture increase in popularity as well. “There are already a number of US-based craft makgeolli producers and articles about the health benefits of makgeolli.” Indeed, a 2015 Munchies story quoted food writer-turned makgeolli bar owner Yo-Yong Yi describing the drink as “the sports drink for adults… [or] yogurt for adults.” Eater mentioned Cody Burns, the brewer at Girin in Seattle, who brews his own makgeolli, in February 2017; a crowdfunding campaign for Makku, a craft makgeolli brewed in Maine was launched on Kickstarter in April of this year. Windrose is set to open later this year, and the bar menu will heavily feature makgeolli.
“I look at makgeolli as another ingredient in my palette to make drinks with,” Lazo said. The makgeolli cocktails he’s planning to serve at Windrose will nod to the drink’s purported health benefits, as they also incorporate other buzzy ingredients: His Lavender Fizz features aquafaba instead of frothy egg whites, and the Sesame on Downing St. is mixed with coconut water and tahini. With any luck, Lazo hopes these cocktails will peak American interest in the spirit.