The Return of the Mak(geolli)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I recently visited a funky little makgeolli bar called Moon Jar that sits just round the corner from Dosan Park in Apgujeong. With us finally being blessed with spring weather worthy of the name, I headed out there again this weekend hoping to enjoy some of this Korean tipple on the bar’s terrace.

Unfortunately, with this being an early Saturday evening, the place was far busier and all the outdoor seats were taken by young, beautiful and, in at least one case, famous patrons (that’s him on the right with the white t-shirt). The upstairs was completely full too, so one of the svelte, check-shirted waiting staff ushered my girlfriend and I to a table on the ground floor. After mulling over the menu, we plumped for something called baedarissal makggeoli, one of the “President Makgeollis,” and mugeunjidon jeon, a spicy version of pajeon. Usually referred to as Korean pancakes, pajeon are made mainly of eggs, flour, green onions and, in this case, some pork and a healthy dollop of chilli peppers (called gochu in Korea).

Unlike several other types of traditional Korean grog, makgeolli has never appealed to me much. It’s not so much its milky texture that put me off (though that certainly didn’t help) as its taste: slightly sweet, zingy, but with a strangely antiseptic finish. I know that coming from an avowed soju fan, these criticisms of taste may ring a bit hollow; but as a part of the ritual scoffing of BBQ pork or beef ribs (still my favourite Korean meal), soju has always occupied a place in my affections that makgeolli never did. That, and makgeolli’s meagre 5 to 6 percent strength (as opposed to soju’s mighty 20%+) has left me with several “mornings after” without much of a “night before.”

This baedarissal stuff, however, was a very different proposition. Smooth, sweet (but not too sweet) and completely zing free, I can honestly say it was the best makgeolli I’ve ever had. In this, according to the menu, I was in very distinguished company: Strongman Park Chung-hee apparently drank baedarissal makgeolli throughout his 14-year tenure in the Blue House, while famed bon vivant Kim Jong-il so wanted to try it, he specifically asked Kim Dae-jung to prepare some for him.

The pajeon was a good accompaniment too: Perhaps not quite as crunchy as I like it, but with a nice, gochu-driven kick. After polishing off the first kettle, we moved onto some lotus makgeolli. Though apparently Moon Jar’s premium brew (still only costing 15,000 won for a 375ml bottle), it tasted much more like regular makgeolli to me, with both a tang and a hint of a fizz that had me wincing slightly with the first few sips.

As for the place itself, it’s very hip in a stripped-back, Parisian art-studio kind of way. As such, it’s symbolic of the recent image overhaul makgeolli has enjoyed, which has seen it transformed from fusty old farmers’ drink to chicly authentic Korean tipple with purported health benefits to boot. While I don’t think I’ll ever be a big fan of makgeolli, places like Moon Jar are great — so pleasant, in fact, you can genuinely forget that you are drinking that stuff still sold in vast, cheap flagons at convenience stores, and imagine yourself drinking Korea’s answer to fine wine. Now, when for the rehabilitation of soju?

How to Get There: If you’re facing Dosan Park, turn right and carry on walking to the end of the park. Turn left, go straight to the end of the park, cross the road, keep walking and Moon Jar is on your left.

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