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Both Rice, Both Nice: The Difference between Soju & Makgeolli


If you were asked to name a Korean spirit, chances are it’ll be soju that first comes to mind. In fact, true to its reputation as South Korea’s unofficial national alcohol, soju has consistently topped global lists for best-selling spirits.

What is less often recognised, however, is soju’s older, quieter sibling: makgeolli. Makgeolli is a type of traditional Korean rice wine that is Korea’s oldest alcohol beverage, with records indicating that it was already being drunk during the Goyreo Dynasty (918-1392).

In many regards, there’s a lot of similarities between soju and makgeolli. Both liquors are made from fermented rice, and can even produced during the same process! Conveniently for us, as well, both can taste pretty delicious when done right.

The Difference between Makgeolli and Soju

 

The primary difference between makgeolli and soju is that the former is a fermented rice wine while the latter is further distilled and matured into a rice liquor. Makgeolli tends to come in at a lower ABV ranging 5-8%, while soju – being distilled – tends to have higher alcohol content of 12-20% ABV.

Both are essentially made from the same ingredients: rice, nuruk (a fermentation starter made from wheat), and water. That said, apart from rice, soju can also be made with a variety of other grains, like tapioca, sweet potato, and wheat. That exception doesn’t apply for makgeolli.

Taste-wise, makgeolli is slightly sweeter and tangier with a milkier texture due to a greater concentration of rice particles in the liquid. Soju tends to be stronger and more neutral and crisp tasting - almost resembling vodka! - with a smoother, thinner texture.

The differences extend beyond just production and taste, but also how makgeolli and soju are consumed. If you go to a Korean restaurant, you might typically find makgeolli being served to you chilled in a teapot and with accompanying shallow bowls called “mal”. A common food pairing enjoyed with makgeolli is a savoury Korean pancake called “jeon”. You might also enjoy eating makgeolli with spicy food, as the sweet milkiness of makgeolli helps to balance out the spice. 

When it comes to soju, you’ll find that restaurants tend to serve it with small shot glasses instead.  You can either drink soju neat or throw the shot glass into a glass of beer to make a cocktail that is colloquially termed a “soju bomb” (or somaek)! Soju is often eaten with Korean barbequed meats, as the clean, crisp taste helps cut through the smokiness and grease.

The Process of Making Soju and Makgeolli

Makgeolli in the making (Image source: E R Wine Shop)


Interestingly, the process of making soju and makgeolli is actually almost one and the same! Another way to think about it is that makgeolli can be a by-product of the soju production process. 

The process for both soju and makgeolli begins with a fermentation starter called nuruk, made from ground wheat, rice and barley. Nuruk is mixed with water before being loaded into a mold to form a large “wheat cake”. It’s then left to ferment before being pounded into a powdery mixture.

A brewer then steams a batch of rice that is cooled before being mixed with the nuruk and water. What results from this is a mash that is called “wonju”. As the wonju is left to ferment, it starts to separate and settle into two separate layers. 

The top layer is golden and clear, and is called the cheongju or yakju. The bottom layer is a cloudier white-ish mixture called takju, where most of the rice sediments settle. Eventually, the top layer is separated to get distilled into soju (click here for a more detailed explanation on the soju making process), while the bottom is diluted with water and bottled as makgeolli. Crucially, the bottom layer that becomes makgeolli is left unfiltered, and the remaining rice sediments is what contributes to makgeolli’s cloudy appearance and milky texture.



(Image source: Hyesun House)

This is also often way you tend to see a particular producer sell both makgeolli and soju. It would be a shame to throw one of the other away during production!

The Nobleman and the Commoner? Why Makgeolli Has Been Living In Soju’s Shadow

Jusageobae (holding a drinking party) by Hyewon (1758–1813)

Despite the similarities between the two, makgeolli has nonetheless been living in soju’s shadows for a while now.

Some of this may be rooted in olden day perceptions and practices. In the past, soju was reserved for only royalty and nobleman as it was deemed to be a more refined and sophisticated type of alcohol. Because it required an additional step of distillation, it was also recognised as more time-consuming and expensive to make. Noblemen would historically drink soju as a marker of their superior social status.

Meanwhile, the humble makgeolli was easier to brew at home, and thus favoured by farmers or peasants as an easier, cheaper, and quicker-to-make alternative to soju. Makgeolli, with the presence of rice sediments, was also seen as a source of nutrition and refreshment suited for the labour-intensive life of a farmer.

Obviously, the same isn’t the case anymore. Nowadays, access to consume and resources to produce both soju and makgeolli has been democratised across people of all classes and both can be readily consumed 



In popular Korean TV series Vincenzo, the antihero Vincenzo can be seen enjoying a bottle of makgeolli. (Image source: TvN)

Yet, makgeolli is often still seen as a more old-fashioned type of drink, and perhaps less exciting than the world of soju. Some of this is likely due to the deep pocketed marketing budget of soju brands, who have truly spared no expense to recruit K-Pop or K-Drama stars to promote their drinks, breeding soju’s comparatively more modern and trendy associations among younger consumers.

Both Rice, Both Nice: Final Thoughts



(Image sources: Kim'C Market, Imbibe Magazine)

Fundamentally though, it’s not necessarily the case that soju is better than makgeolli – or vice versa. In truth, it should comes down to your flavour preference – do you prefer the tangy-sweet effervescence of low-ABV makgeolli or the crisp, clean, smooth of a higher-ABV soju? 

 

I’m personally a sucker for makgeolli’s subtle sour-sweet flavours and thicker, creamier consistency, so perhaps I’m biased. But if you’ve already tried soju, and are looking for something more gentle on the palette, I’d definitely recommend giving its an older rice-based sibling a try.

A final tip when trying makgeolli: do note that makgeollis can be broken up into two types, the unpasteurised and the pasteurised. Unpasteurised makgeolli have not been heat treated and hence contains “live” bacteria from the fermentation. While this results in a shorter shelf life, it does help to add more flavour complexity, a punchier tang, and a fizzier effervescence that makgeolli aficionados look out for. If you can, shop for brands like craft breweries Boksoondoga and Bae Sang Myeon, whom produce small-batch fresh unpasteurised makgeollis – but make sure you consume it soon for the most authentic experience!

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For a beginners guide to soju, click here!

For a list of craft soju brands to check out, click here!

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@lotusroot518