MAKGEOLLI MAKING AND SHARING DESIGNATED AS NATIONAL INTANGIBLE CULTURAL HERITAGE
The Cultural Heritage Administration has a new listing on the national intangible heritage list: the traditional Korean alcoholic beverage makgeolli and its associated culture. It incorporates the skill of making this milky and lightly effervescent rice wine and the cultural practices associated with its sharing. Makgeolli is conventionally brewed by cooking rice, mixing it with water and nuruk (a fermentation starter which contains sacchrogenic enzymes and natural yeast), and running the mash through a sieve after a few days of fermentation. ‘Mak’ in makgeolli means ‘right now,’ ‘just then’ and ‘geolli’ mean ‘to filter.’ Not only is the word pure Korean, but the name itself reveals the method of making the beverage and its characteristics.
Makgeolli is an alcoholic beverage made from rice or other grains that is purported to date back to the introduction of farming on the Korean Peninsula. Histories on the Three Kingdoms period, such as Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) include terms such as mion, jiju, and ryoye that presumably refer to what is known as makgeolli today. Baekju and other terms purported to denote makgeolli appear in Dongguk isanggukjip (Collection of Works by Minister Yi of the Eastern State) and other literary compilations from the Goryeo Dynasty. Books from the Joseon period, such as the novel Chunhyangjeon (The Story of Chunhyang) and the encyclopedia Gwangjaemulbo (Information on Comprehensive Things) contain mentions of mok-geolli or mak-geolli. Joseon-era cookbooks such as Gyuhap chongseo and Eumsik dimibang contain alcoholic beverages that would have been enjoyed as a cloudy makgeolli.
Makgeolli can be made easily and at low cost simply with rice and the fermentation starter nuruk. As a result, it was easily affordable, and it became the alcohol that soothes the sorrows of ordinary people. Makgeolli quenched the thirst of farmers throughout the working season. Korean farm laborers used to say, "If it all pays the same, I'd rather offer a hand to the farmhouse serving the most delicious makgeolli." As a result, it was easily affordable, and it became the alcohol that soothes the sorrows of ordinary people.
Makgeolli was also an indispensable element in ritual ceremonies and celebrations or mourning. Many traditions featuring makgeolli as a ritual drink have been transmitted to the present. The milky rice wine is still presented as an offering in diverse modern ceremonies commemorating, for example, the completion of a building, purchase of a new car, or opening of shops.
A popular drink widely consumed nationwide, makgeolli was one of the fermented foods made by individual households up to the end of the Joseon era. Along with other definitive Korean fermented foods such as kimchi and soybean-based sauces, makgeolli was brewed in individual households, meaning a distinctive taste could be passed down in each one. Starting in the 20th century, makgeolli production gradually switched to commercial breweries and the ingredients underwent a natural course of change. Makgeolli has evolved as it adapted to sociocultural conditions. The popularity of this traditional Korean rice wine has surged since 2000s. There is also a growing number of people brewing their own these days. (As the liquor tax law strengthened during the Japanese colonial period, homemade alcohol became a crackdown target as moonshine. From 1995, the manufacture of homemade alcohol for self-consumption was legalized.)
In a nutshell, the tradition of making and sharing makgeolli has been evaluated as worth entry onto the national intangible heritage list for the following reasons: its transmission across the Korean Peninsula for eons; its historicity supported by documents; it serves as an interesting subject of study in diverse academic fields such as history, food sciences, and folklore studies; its association with a wide range of farmers' songs, folkloric sayings, and literary works, contributing to deepening the understanding of Korean culture; exhibiting distinctive local characteristics based on the makgeolli breweries dispersed across the country; and the fact that it is actively practiced today by diverse communities such as local breweries, research organizations, and individual families.
As a form of popular culture, this element will be designated as National Intangible Cultural Heritage without the usual recognition of its holders. There are 12 elements on the national intangible heritage list (including kimchi making and traditional sauce making) that have been so registered without recognized holders.
The designation of makgeolli making and sharing as National Intangible Cultural Heritage is particularly meaningful as its impetus came from a public proposal. In 2019 the Cultural Heritage Administration made a widespread call for candidates for the national intangible heritage list by organizing a public contest and through the established online channel for civil petitions. It is the first case of the listing of an intangible heritage element initiated by civic participation. This makgeolli case was awarded a Prime Minister's Prize as an outstanding example of serving the public interest.
To celebrate the designation of ‘Makgeolli’ the Cultural Heritage Administration will host a commemoration event on June 26th (Sat) at 5 pm at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace, Suwon City, Gyeonggi-do, co-hosted with the Korean Makgeolli Association, Korean Traditional Liquor Manufacturers Association. In addition, the Korean Makgeolli Association, Korean Traditional Liquor Manufacturers Association will run brewery tours and hands-on makgeolli making programs for two days on June 26-27(Sat-Sun) in 26 makgeolli breweries across the country. Anyone interested in makgeolli can sign up on a first-come, first-served basis. The details can be found on the 'K-Intangible Heritage' Instagram page.
* 'K-Intangible Heritage' page: Instagram (instagram.com/k_intangible_heritage_u)
Division: Intangible Cultural Heritage Division
Contact 1: Lee Ji-eun, 042-481-4964
Contact 2: Lee Jeong-hwa, 042-481-4994