Japan from the inside out

Mango makgeolli: Another Japan-Korea love match

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 24, 2010

Makgeolli is a very healthy drink, it is a good addition to one’s diet, and it has been used by women to enhance beauty.
– South Korea President Lee Myung-bak

IF YOU THOUGHT the mango beer presented in a post last week was an unusual combination for an alcoholic beverage, wait until you read about mango makgeolli!

Makgeolli is a hyper-sweet, milky-looking liquor made from rice that’s traditionally drunk from bowls. Part of its charm is the fermented rice solids floating in it, so it’s usually shaken or stirred before it’s poured. The popular conception of makgeolli has long been one of hooch for hayseeds, and in that sense it might be considered the Korean version of white lightning. Every one of these aspects makes it an analog for the Japanese drink doburoku, which you can read more about here.

Lately, the Koreans have been devising ways to turn makgeolli into an upmarket beverage, and these include adding fruit flavors and pitching it to women. Enter stage left a Japanese businessman from Noshiro, Akita, who worked with a Korean makgeolli brewer to develop a mango makgeolli creation suited for the Japanese market. The entrepreneur, Tsukamoto Tamio, operates a business hotel in Noshiro where he first sold the drink.

It’s 20% pure mango juice, so you can imagine how sweet the combination must be. It contains no artificial coloring or aromatics. Enough people discovered and enjoyed it for him to launch sales on this Japanese-language website since last month. It’s also available at mass merchandisers in Noshiro and Akita City, and eating and drinking places in Noshiro.

The nature of the drink has made it popular among women, and they’re a market segment always appreciates a low calorie count. Mango makgeolli has 19.4 calories per 100 milliliters, compared to 40 for beer, 75 for wine, 110 for sake, and 135 for shochu. Another number that some might appreciate is the 8% alcohol by volume.

It costs JPY 735 (about $US 8.16) for a 750 ml PET bottle, and JPY 420 for a 300 ml glass bottle, which is shown in the photo. The one on the right has been sitting on the shelf undisturbed, while the one on the left has been shaken.

Mr. Tsukamoto is importing it through the Port of Akita, and he’s set up a two-way commercial enterprise by selling local items to South Korea over the Internet. Akita currently enjoys a high name recognition in Korea because it was one of the locations where the big-budget, blockbuster television series Iris was filmed. The espionage thriller was wildly popular last fall in South Korea, and it generated a surge of Korean tourism to Akita. The same phenomenon in reverse had Japanese visiting the shooting locations for such Korean TV dramas as Winter Sonata. (Iris is now being broadcast on Japanese television.)

These two YouTube videos present an interesting contrast. The first is a Korean video in English promoting the new varieties of makgeolli. It’s well done–perhaps too well done in places. One of the supposedly casual customers interviewed on camera is a young woman attractive enough to be a model whose blouse color just happens to match the color of her drink.

The second is a video of a doburoku festival filmed in Shirakawa-go Gifu. The environment is quite different from the first video, but just as fascinating. It’s easy to see the resemblance between the two drinks–even down to the October date of their respective festivals. It also reminds me that I’ve been negligent writing festival posts recently!

The Japanese aren’t adding fruit syrup to doburoku, but here’s a post about a company that came up with the bright idea to make doburoku ice cream.

Notice all the connections between Japan and South Korea in this story? None of them will particularly surprise the people of either country. To quote once again a South Korean speaking in Japanese that I heard on a live NHK radio program broadcast from Seoul a few years ago, the only ties between the two countries that aren’t flourishing are the political.

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