Drinking Culture in Korea Centuries Past

Robert Neff’s Korea Times article is not specifically about makgeolli but, rather, a look at what it was like to enjoy a tipple in the Land of Morning Calm as it opened its doors to the outside world. Fair warning: along with the interest of the history of these times, there’s also a heaping dose of racism and xenophobia. From the article:

“One drinking incident took place in August 1875 when a British warship ― sailing along the coast of Korea ― was visited by a group of local Korean dignitaries. The Koreans were given a tour around the ship and then, in a sign of friendship, drinks were exchanged.

The senior Korean offered makgeolli to his host who described it as ‘whitish in colour and sour in taste.’ The British captain answered by commanding a keg of pale ale to be brought out and served to the Koreans who gave ‘no signs of pleasure or disgust’ while drinking it.

A decade later, a couple of Englishmen stopped at a Korean inn located halfway between Jemulpo (modern Incheon) and Seoul. Wanting to be friendly, the men shared three quarts of German beer with the inn’s Korean customers. Most of the Koreans ‘expressed their high opinion of the liquor’ but one man ‘took but one mouthful and ejected it with an expression of extreme disgust.’ Perhaps what I heard as a boy is true: beer is an acquired taste.

Koreans were no strangers to alcohol ― especially makgeolli. An American missionary wrote in the late 1880s: ‘The drink curse is widely prevalent in Korea … [and] Maudlin sots or drunken brawls, with men tugging at each other’s top-knots are, alas, a common sight upon the streets.’ Commentary about Koreans and alcohol often appeared in the letters and diaries of visiting Westerners.”

Read the whole article here.

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