White lightning in Northeast Asia
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 3, 2011
IN THE WEST, the primary consumers of sweet alcoholic beverages are usually either young people slightly above or below the legal drinking age, unaccustomed and ill-disposed to the taste of the real thing, or women a few years older. (Southern Comfort was the liquor of choice for the well-known juicehead Janis Joplin.) I’ve never seen an adult male drink a rum and coke. Daiquiris might be an exception, but they’re more tart than sweet. And I’ve never seen anyone drink a mint julep at any time other than the first Saturday of May — Kentucky Derby day.
Sweetness seems to be more to the taste of northeast Asians in their tippling traditions, however. While there are both sweet and dry varieties of Japanese sake, the original beverage was probably sweet. The Japanese version of white lightning, doburoku, is sweeter still. That’s a milky white form of sake that isn’t fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.
Sweet white lightning made from rice is another of the many elements Japanese and Korean culture have in common. The Korean analog is called makgeolli, and it shares several attributes with doburoku: It’s just as white, just as sweet, and just as likely to cause those who consume it to wake up the next morning convinced there’s an axe embedded in their forehead. The background story says it was originally brewed for farm workers to drink instead of water while in the fields, which might be the reason Korea has never been an agricultural superpower. It was originally called nongju, a name that translates as farm liquor. Japanese will recognize it from the kanji: 農酒. Both doburoku and makgeolli are 6-8% alcohol by volume, slightly more than local beers, but less than sake.
There are an estimated 40 different kinds of makgeolli, and rice is not the only farm product used to brew it. When then-Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio visited South Korea in October 2009, President Lee Myong-bak used makgeolli for the toast at the state dinner. That variety, however, was made from a purple variety of sweet potato known in Japan as satsumaimo. The Kagoshimanians of Kyushu use it to make their own hairy-chested version of shochu, which isn’t sweet in the slightest. This particular satsumaimo was created by cross-breeding the Japanese and Korean types. Using that beverage on that occasion was a brilliant idea, and whoever in the Blue House came up with it deserves a toast in their honor.
Most of the doburoku in Japan sits in a corner of the liquor store shelf gathering dust, while the South Koreans have succeeded in turning makgeolli into a popular commercial beverage, as we’ve seen before. Sales have gotten high rather quickly. A year or so ago (there was no date on the article), a Korean outfit called GS25 analyzed liquor sales at 3,700 convenience stores nationwide as of August and found that makgeolli ranked fourth, behind beer, shochu/soju, and whiskey, and one slot ahead of wine.
Those rankings might be a reflection of the type of customer likely to shop for grog at convenience stores. A survey conducted by the Lotte department stores in South Korea of liquor sales at their own outlets for a recent July-September period revealed that makgeolli was in third place behind wine and whiskey, and ahead of beer and Japanese sake. The ranking the year before was whiskey, wine, beer, sake, and makgeolli. Of course, you don’t need to see the stats from the marketing survey division to know that women do most of the buying at department stores. Another factor is seasonal and cultural—chusok, the Korean version of o-bon, falls in September, and makgeolli has become a popular choice for gifts.
Soju distiller Jinro ignited the boom by producing more marketable versions of the beverage. (There’s a good video with details at the link above.) Suntory is trying to do something similar in Japan, as they’ve brought out a slightly carbonated version in a can they call Seoul Makgeolli. It’s safe to assume Suntory thinks the foreignness of makgeolli will hold more cachet for young women than the familiarity of doburoku, the choice of hayseeds.
But before you hard guys snort with derision and reach for something more manly, get a load of this: A team at the Korean Food Research Institute announced last month their discovery that makgeolli has anti-carcinogenic ingredients in quantities up to 25 times greater than beer or wine. Specifically, they mean farnesol, which is also one of the critical elements that add aroma to wine.
The team made a point of examining liquors commonly sold on the market. The amount of farnesol in makgeolli tested out at 150-500 parts per billion, 10-25 times the 15-20 ppb of beer and wine. Their research showed the cloudiest parts of the beverage had the greatest amount of farnesol, so it was best to shake up the sediment before drinking it.
These tidings of good cheer come with the chaser of some bad news, alas. The head of the team said that a real effect would be achieved by drinking three or four cups about twice a week. I had that much one evening in Busan (and a similar amount of doburoku that I bought in Nagasaki and broke out at a party), and I’ll stick to other health maintenance methods. As Voltaire is said to have replied when declining a second invitation by the Marquis de Sade to another orgy after he’d enjoyed the first one: “No thanks. Once is philosophy, twice is perversion.”
That research team seems to have performed their task with single-minded devotion. There’s only a small amount of farnesol in makgeolli, which is 90% water, so it was difficult to extract and analyze. They had to develop new technology just to perform the analysis. Now for the unfortunate news: They used the announcement of their discovery as an opportunity to let their Korean little man complex out of the closet for some fresh air:
“Through this research, we developed for the first time the technology to analyze the farnesol from the traditional alcoholic beverage makgeolli. We thus obtained the basic technology enabling the scientific verification of the superiority of South Korean makgeolli.”
Use your new technology and run the tests on doburoku before you say that, guys. It’s the same stuff, after all.
The Japanese and South Koreans also share a cultural taste for a more sedate beverage — tea, which some of them are using to further cross-strait ties. Chomu-kai (朝霧会), a tea ceremony group in Yame, Fukuoka, (a noted tea production area) last week welcomed the “tea culture research group” Unnim Chahue (雲林茶会) from Gwangju, South Korea, to celebrate 10 years of friendship. The chairman and six members of the Korean group hopped over to Yame for two days of tea parties and planting.
The Yame group was formed to promote interest in local tea using the tea ceremonies of the five major Japanese schools. Bak Guang-sun, the husband of the Unnim Chahue chairman, found out about the group when he taught at nearby Kurume University. He thought hanging out with them would be an excellent way to pursue his study of the tea culture in Japan.
The tea bushes they planted together will take four or five years to sprout drinkable leaves, and when they do they’ll have a friendship party and savor it together. Maybe as the night wears on they’ll switch to makgeolli/doburoku and conduct some research into rice culture while they’re at it!
Here’s how Jinro is plugging makgeolli on Japanese TV. I’m tempted to buy some and invite the ladies over for a pajama party. That game looks like fun.
Meanwhile, Suntory imported Jang Geun-seok from South Korea to pitch Seoul Makgeolli, as you can see in this ad. The company’s choice in models shows they know exactly which market segment they’re trying to capture. Isn’t he precious? Isn’t that earring just darling? And what an adorable hairstyle!
If you’ve worked up a thirst after all this talk about booze, maybe it’s time to get on the ladder—i.e., go bar-hopping in Japanese—with Sabor de Gracia from Spain as they set fire to a few themselves.
Bar-hop far enough, and you might walk into this joint in England. (That’s a flash file.) Whether you walk out again in one piece is a different matter.