What Is Korean Rice Wine Makkoli?

Makkoli
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Makkoli, also known as makgeolli, is an unfiltered Korean rice wine with a cloudy, milky appearance. The low-alcohol wine is effervescent (lightly sparkling) and has a sweet-tart flavor profile. It is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in Korea, long considered a farmer's drink, and is typically very affordable. Because of its natural probiotics, makkoli has a limited shelflife. It is often available on draft in Korea and served in small bowls.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Korea
  • Origin: Korea
  • Sweetness: Lightly sweet to sweet
  • Color: Milky white
  • ABV: 6–8% 
  • Other Names: Makgeolli, nongju

Makkoli vs. Soju

While makkoli is yet to hit its stride in western markets, soju has become a popular drink at Korean restaurants and bars around the world. It's widely available in liquor stores, and while it is another traditional Korean rice wine, it is very different. Soju is higher in alcohol, typically over 15%, and is filtered for a clear, light-bodied but boozier drink. It lacks the creamy texture and natural probiotics of makkoli and has a longer shelflife. Both taste great paired with Korean food, but soju won't calm spice quite like makkoli.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Makkoli or makgeolli is typically lightly sweet, but some cheaper version can be especially sweet thanks to added sugar or aspartame. Because it is unfiltered, it is slightly tangy, similar to yogurt. Most bottles of makkoli are lightly sparkling, making the drink effervescent. The nose can include sweet rice and yogurt, and the thick wine has a milky, creamy mouthfeel. It has low to medium acidity thanks to the natural fermentation and no tannins since it is not made using grapes.

Wine Production and Regions

Makkoli is a rice wine, meaning it is made using primarily rice rather than grapes. It is a traditional Korean drink dating back to the 7th century and is historically a cheap drink of the poor. More recently it has become popular in Korean bars, with various brands of makkoli served on tap.

Makkoli is made using cooked sweet rice and nuruk, a dry fermented cereal cake that works as a starter, encouraging mold growth which produces sugars that in turn produce alcohol. Other grains, such as wheat or barley, can be used in addition to the rice for different characteristics. The mixture is left in clay pots to ferment for about a week. Korea produces the vast majority of makkoli, with a few Japanese rice winemakers producing their own version.

Because makkoli is unfiltered and naturally fermented, it is best when drunk within a week or two after production. It will turn to rice vinegar within a few months. Many of the plastic bottles of makkoli available in the states are pasteurized, increasing their shelflife but killing off much of the bacteria that gives it its signature flavor and health benefits.

Food Pairings

Makkoli pairs best with sweet-spicy-sour-savory Korean food and can help diminish the effects of spicy food. Serve it chilled alongside spicy kimchi dishes like Kimchichigae or kimchi fried rice or have it with a fun dinner of Korean pork belly (bossam). Because it is lightly sparkling, served cold, and low alcohol, it makes an ideal daytime and summertime drink.

Makkoli is traditionally served poured into small bowls similar to soup. This allows the drinker to stir the cloudy rice wine, keeping the sediment from sinking to the bottom. If you don't have small bowls available, serve in short tumblers. It can also be used in mixed drinks.

Health Benefits

Since makkoli is an unfiltered fermented drink, it contains healthy bacteria similar to yogurt. This bacteria may aid in digestion, giving the rice wine potential health benefits. It is also low in alcohol when compared to other wines and rice wines, making it less intoxicating. Note that most makkoli imported into America is pasteurized, removing most of the healthy bacteria. Locally made makkoli can sometimes be found in large cities with a sizable Asian population.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Because makkoli (makgeolli) is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in Korea and Japan, it is harder to track down than most wines. Makkoli can be found in some liquor stores, Korean markets, and Korean restaurants and bars. It can also be ordered online. Unpasteurized makkoli will provide the best flavor—consume it within a week. If you can't find makkoli, look for dongdong-ju, a similar drink with a creamier texture, Chinese choujiu, or Japanese nigori.

These makkoli brands are widely available:

  • Makku
  • Kooksoondang
  • Gyeongju Beopju
  • Saeng Saeng
  • Il Dong
  • K Waknae