When I found out I had a long weekend off in November, I knew it was the perfect chance to see Jeonju. I’ve long wanted to visit both because Jeonju has a reputation for embodying the more traditional aspects of Korean life, architecture, and art, and because it is one of the major makgeolli producing centers in the country. According to my guidebook:
Jeonju is one of the best places in the land for the milky rice-wine known as makkeolli [sic]. You’ll find over a dozen varieties on sale in convenience stores around the city (though usually only one or two per location)…
– The Rough Guide to Korea (2011)
This description wasn’t a lie: almost every convenience store, corner store, and supermarket has a wide variety of bottles for sale, many of which I had never heard of. And it was rare to see the same bottle twice.
Unless, of course, we’re talking about moju (모주). Jeonju Moju made by Jeonju Brewery (전주주조) is absolutely everywhere in the town, especially in the touristy area known as Hanok Village. Because it is touted as a good hangover cure and because I knew I had some serious drinking ahead of me, I made a snap decision to grab a couple bottles. You can read me review of Jeonju Moju here.
As much as I love trying new makgeollis, what I really wanted to experience was Jeonju’s makgeolli scene. If you pick up a tourist map at one of the info booths in Hanok Village, you’ll see that Jeonju has at least four (maybe more) “Makgeolli Towns” scattered all over the city. If you’re staying near Hanok Village, the closest town is in Gyeongwon-dong (경원동). The other three are Samcheong-dong (삼청동), Pyeonghwa-dong (평화동), and Seosin-dong (서신동).
After a bit of research, we decided to head out to Seosin-dong. There must be nearly a dozen joomaks packed into three or four blocks of this makgeolli-loving neighborhood. We took a short stroll around before we stopped in at Yetchon Makgeolli (옛촌 막걸리), a joomak that came highly recommended from internet sites, local foreigners, and cab drivers.
It’s one of these makgeolli places that embraces the rowdy, the loud, and the drunk, and each kettle brings you one step closer to getting loaded with your best friends or whomever happens to be seated next to you. Customers mark the walls with graffiti, chow down, raise their bowls in countless toasts, shout obscenities, and when they’re ready for more booze, they clank their kettle in the air to get someone’s attention.
The server that greeted us was friendly and patient despite the place being absolutely packed. He explained the system: ₩15,000 per person would get us a kettle of makgeolli. And eight dishes – no joke. Customers have the option of either drinking Ssal Takju (쌀탁주) or Ssal Malgunju (쌀맑운주); my friend chose the former.
The kettle that came out was the size of my head and was filled about halfway full of Yetchon’s very own makgeolli. But before we could even pour, the food arrived: our table was crowded with chicken soup (samgyetang), pork and kimchi stew (kimchi jjim), pigs’ feet (jokbal), jeon (buchimgae), fried eggs (hulai), fish (saeng seon), oysters (seokhwa), and mussel soup (honghabtang). The makgeolli house even serves Korea’s famous squirming octopus dish, sannakji.
Despite the fun atmosphere and the friendliness of the wait staff, neither my companion nor I was wowed by Yetchon. Out of the mountain of food that came with our order, nothing particularly stood out. At least the jeon should have been tasty, right? (To be fair, we were unaware of what a feast we would get and had just gorged on a huge meal of bibimbap only an hour earlier.) More importantly, the house makgeolli was a very bland, aspartame affair that the majority of the customers were dressing up with cider in order to make maksa (read my post on maksa here).
I know Jeonju, and Jeolla-do as a whole, is famous for restaurants that lay out huge spreads of food. However, I was looking for a makgeolli house with a good selection of quality makgeollis. Maybe I’ve become a pampered and snobby Seoulite. That being said, the atmosphere and service can’t be beat at Yetchon, and if you’re going to Jeonju I would still recommend checking out Yetchon and the Makgeolli Town scene in general.
As we were doing some sightseeing in Hanok Village the next day, we happened upon the Jeonju Korean Traditional Wine Museum (전주 전통술박물관). I’d read about the hands-on programs the museum offers, like making makgeolli, filtering moju, and learning about local drinking customs. But, of course, nothing was happening that Friday. To make matters worse, there was very little information in English. The museum was a bust in the end but, the fact that it’s in a well-maintained hanok (a traditional Korean house) and that there are a lot of great displays, leads me to believe that this could be a great experience if it was a little more foreigner friendly.
I was worried that I was going to leave Jeonju with a bad makgeolli taste in my mouth but, on our last night in town, an unlikely combination of events fell into place – the sort of thing that only seems to happen when you’re not looking for it. We were walking down a dark alley when I saw a decrepit building with the word “makgeolli” printed in Hangeul. Ignoring the old man smoking in front of the building, I stopped to take a picture. He immediately took an interest in me and when I told him I like makgeolli, he insisted that my friend and I come into the shop so he could treat us.
We walked into Beodeulsik (버들식) and it was like a scene from a Clint Eastwood western: The customers and the two old women running the place went silent and turned to stare at us. But our beneficiary’s strident voice proclaimed that he wanted makgeolli and food for the newcomers. We sat down embarrassed and uncomfortable but we were committed now. The place was dirty, heaps of stuff piled up in the backroom, with blank walls for decoration.
“I have no idea. Their accents are so thick. And the one guy starts a topic and the next sentence is about something completely different.”
It’s true: the makgeolli was nothing special and everyone in the place told us we needed to mix in cider. Along with our bottle, we were served bossam (steamed pork), kimchi, sweet potatoes, some green herb or seaweed thing, and dwoenjang jiggae. While it might seem that it paled in comparison to Yetchon, it was one of the simplest and best meals I ate in Jeonju. The old guys, with their inscrutable accents, were genuinely hospitable and enthusiastic, and wanted to keep buying us more makgeolli until finally we had to say no. Beodeulsik is certainly not for everyone but, when you go to a touristy place like Jeonju, it’s refreshing to see where the locals go. For me, it was one of the most memorable parts of my trip.
If you want more information on Jeonju’s Makgeolli Towns, check out this site.
Details about Yetchon Makgeolli (예촌막걸리): Wansan-gu Seoshin-dong 847-13, Jeonju (전주시 완산구 서신동 847-13); +82 63 251 5388; www.yetchon.com