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Cocktail comeback rescues ancient Korean brew

By Kyung Lah, CNN
  • Jipyeong brewery produces liquor using techniques unchanged for generations
  • Makgeolli is a milky, sweet beverage with the alcoholic content of strong beer
  • The drink is becoming a hit on the cocktail circuit in fashionable Seoul bars

Jipyeong-ri, South Korea (CNN) -- Step into the Jipyeong Factory, and you walk back in time.

Here, in a farming community two hours' drive east of Seoul, Bang Hio Yeun, like his father and his father's father before him, brews his family's recipe for Korea's oldest liquor, makgeolli.

Nothing Bang does has altered from the methods of his forebears.

"This way," he said, running his fingers down a kitchen drawer-sized box filled with yeast. "If you use a modern machine, this is easy. But this is the only way to make makgeolli delicious."

After the yeast rises, the makgeolli brews in giant clay pots. After several days, the final product is a milky liquor that's lightly carbonated and sweet; a close cousin of Japan's sake with the alcoholic strength of a powerful beer, it's the perfect accompaniment to Korea's spicy food.

Makgeolli dates back centuries in Korea's history. During Japan's 35-year rule of Korea from 1910, the government taxed and restricted domestic drinks, so the liquor fell out of favor.

But brewers like Bang's grandfather kept it alive, secretly making the milky liquor. It grew into the farmer's drink, because it's made of rice and is filling.

In post-war Korea, makgeolli was overshadowed by the emergence of rice wine-style liquor soju as Korea's dominant spirit. In 2008, Korea's National Tax Service says soju remained Korea's leading liquor export, but makgeolli is making a strong comeback, with exports growing 26.6 percent compared to the year before.

This is, in part, because Koreans are rediscovering this old drink, a revival largely thanks to a makeover in some of Seoul's chic neighborhoods.

At Chin Chin Bar, chief chef Kim Hak Soo chops up melon and throws it in a blender with makgeolli to create one of a menu of cocktails that have become wildly popular among a new generation of Koreans.

Here, a group of 20-somethings clink their glasses to celebrate the waning days of summer.

"Anyone who's trendy drinks makgeolli," a young woman said, her designer bag hanging from the back of her chair.

To see this group drink something nearly lost in Korea's history is a victory for Kim, who rediscovered the potential of makgeolli in culinary school.

"Before, Koreans could only drink makgeolli at dirty markets or shabby restaurants," Kim said. "I believe the drink deserves better."