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Maekju, Soju, Makgeolli: Sipping Korean Rice Beverages

Maekju, Soju, Makgeolli: Sipping Korean Rice Beverages

Maekju, Soju, Makgeolli: Sipping Korean Rice Beverages

Raising a Glass to Korean Drinking Culture

As a Korean-American, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the art of drinking in my culture. While my parents may have avoided the stuff, I’ve become somewhat of a “Korean drinking trainer” among my friends, eager to share the unique customs and flavors of soju, maekju, and makgeolli.

You see, drinking in Korea isn’t just a way to unwind – it’s a full-blown cultural experience. It’s where business deals are made, friendships are forged, and familial bonds are strengthened. And at the heart of it all are three distinct rice-based beverages that have become iconic within Korean society.

So, pour yourself a glass and let’s dive into the world of Korean rice drinks – from the ubiquitous soju to the traditional makgeolli, and everything in between.

Soju: The Beloved National Spirit

If there’s one drink that’s synonymous with Korea, it’s soju. This clear, slightly sweet spirit has been the country’s go-to tipple for generations, with Koreans downing an astounding 3 billion bottles of the stuff each year [1]. That’s enough to make it the best-selling distilled alcohol brand in the world – no small feat for a nation of just 51 million people.

But soju’s rise to global dominance isn’t just a numbers game. This unassuming liquor has a rich history and cultural significance that’s deeply intertwined with the Korean way of life. Traditionally, it was distilled from rice, but modern iterations often use more affordable ingredients like sweet potatoes or even barley. Regardless of the base, soju’s signature flavor profile – slightly sweet, with a subtle kick – makes it an incredibly versatile companion to a wide range of Korean dishes.

Whether you’re indulging in a plate of juicy, grilled pork belly (samgyeopsal) or digging into a steaming hot bowl of tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), a chilled shot of soju is the perfect pairing. And the ritual surrounding soju consumption is just as integral to the experience. The eldest at the table is tasked with opening the bottle and pouring for the others, a nod to the Confucian values of respect and hierarchy that permeate Korean culture [2].

But soju’s appeal extends beyond the dinner table. It’s the go-to drink for after-work gatherings, where colleagues can unwind and bond over shared experiences. And in the vibrant nightlife of Seoul, soju flows freely, fueling the energy and camaraderie of the city’s bustling bars and pubs.

Maekju: The Refreshing Counterpart to Soju

While soju may be the undisputed king of Korean alcoholic beverages, maekju – or Korean beer – holds a special place in the hearts (and taste buds) of many. Unlike the heavy, hoppy brews that dominate Western markets, Korean beers tend to be light, crisp, and eminently drinkable.

Brands like Hite, Cass, and Kloud have become ubiquitous fixtures in Korean bars and restaurants, offering a refreshing complement to the bold flavors of Korean cuisine. And the practice of “somaek” – mixing soju and maekju into a single, effervescent concoction – has become a beloved ritual among locals and visitors alike [3].

But maekju is more than just a mixer. It’s a social lubricant, a way to bring people together and facilitate conversation. Whether you’re bonding with old friends over a round of beers or sealing a business deal with potential partners, maekju is the drink that greases the wheels of Korean camaraderie.

And just like soju, there’s a specific etiquette surrounding the consumption of maekju. The eldest or most senior person at the table is tasked with opening the bottle and pouring for the others, ensuring that everyone’s glass is constantly refilled [4]. It’s a gesture of respect and care that’s deeply ingrained in Korean culture.

Makgeolli: The Rustic Charm of Korean Rice Wine

While soju and maekju may be the more well-known representatives of Korean alcoholic beverages, makgeolli holds a special place in the hearts of many Koreans. This traditional rice wine, with its milky white hue and slightly effervescent texture, is a true taste of the country’s agricultural heritage.

Makgeolli’s origins can be traced back to the Goguryeo kingdom, where it was a staple drink among farmers and laborers. The process of making makgeolli is labor-intensive, involving the fermentation of a combination of rice, wheat, and nuruk (a traditional Korean starter culture) [5]. The result is a low-alcohol (typically around 6-7%) beverage that’s both refreshing and slightly sweet.

But makgeolli’s appeal extends beyond its rustic charm and unique flavor profile. It’s also deeply intertwined with Korean culture and tradition. Historically, makgeolli was often brewed in the home, with families gathering to share the fruits of their labor. And even today, the ritual of serving makgeolli – pouring it into traditional copper bowls and drinking it alongside savory pancakes (jeon) or spicy stews – is a cherished part of Korean hospitality [6].

In recent years, makgeolli has undergone a bit of a renaissance, with artisanal producers and innovative flavors (think strawberry, blueberry, or even chocolate) breathing new life into this ancient beverage. And as Korean cuisine continues to gain global recognition, makgeolli is starting to find its way onto the menus of trendy restaurants and bars, offering a unique and authentic taste of the Korean experience.

Sipping, Snacking, and Socializing: The Korean Drinking Experience

While the individual beverages that make up the Korean drinking landscape are fascinating in their own right, it’s the overall experience that truly sets Korean drinking culture apart. It’s not just about the drinks themselves, but the way they’re consumed, the food that accompanies them, and the social bonds they help to forge.

At the heart of this experience is the concept of “cha,” or rounds of drinking. A typical night out in Korea might involve multiple “cha,” each with its own distinct flavor and purpose. The first round, or “ilcha,” might be a hearty dinner of Korean barbecue, accompanied by the ubiquitous somaek (soju and maekju mix) [7]. As the night progresses, the “cha” might move to a cocktail bar for a more premium experience, or to a karaoke joint for some spirited singing and socializing.

And let’s not forget the all-important “anju” – the small plates and snacks that are an essential part of the Korean drinking experience. From crispy fried chicken and spicy rice cakes to savory pajeon (scallion pancakes) and hearty soups, these salty, flavorful bites are the perfect foil to the robust flavors of soju, maekju, and makgeolli [8].

But perhaps the most unique aspect of Korean drinking culture is the way it facilitates social bonding and hierarchy. Pouring drinks for others, never refilling your own glass, and respecting the seniority of those around you are all deeply ingrained customs that reflect the Confucian values at the heart of Korean society. It’s a way of showing respect, fostering camaraderie, and strengthening the ties that bind.

So, whether you’re sipping a delicate makgeolli, savoring a crisp maekju, or indulging in the ubiquitous soju, the true joy of Korean drinking culture lies in the experiences it creates – the laughter, the stories, and the connections that are forged over a shared love of these iconic rice-based beverages.


[1] Amy Dunkley. “Soju, Maekju and Makgeolli: Drinking in Korea.” Amy in Wonderland, 5 Feb. 2012,

[2] “Korean Drinking Etiquette.” Reddit, 16 Jan. 2013,

[3] Haley, Melissa. “A Guide to Korean Drinking Etiquette.” Food52, 24 Mar. 2021,

[4] “Who Drinks More, Sake – Koreans or Japanese?” Quora,

[5] Stein, Tara. “What Is Korean Soju, and Why Is It So Popular?” Food & Wine, 27 Feb. 2023,

[6] Kitchen Catastrophe. “Qt 114: A Drink or Two and Anju.” Kitchen Catastrophe, 21 Aug. 2017,

[7] “Korean Drinking Etiquette.” Honorary Reporters, 19 Dec. 2019,

[8] “Korean Alcohol: Your (Mini) Guide to Korean Drinking Etiquette.” 90 Day Korean, 21 Jan. 2021,