Time and time again, I’ve heard someone ask, “What is dongdongju? And how is it different from makgeolli?” Dongdongju (동동주) seems to be a drink shrouded in mystery. Or, at least disagreement: some say it’s just another name for makgeolli, while others say it has qualities that set it apart from its close relative.
To get to the bottom of this, I contacted Ung Jae Paik, owner and proprietor of the Seoul-based makgeolli house Sebal Jajeongeo (세발자전거), or ‘Tricycle’ in English. He painted an interesting picture of dongdongju in a bygone era:
“For most Koreans in their 40s or older, dongdongju almost automatically reminds them of Pimatgol (피맛골), the back street of bustling Jongro Avenue (종로). In the past, Jongro served as a main thoroughfare for lords, ladies, and other aristocrats, including even the king himself. Of course, any commoner on the street would have to kneel whenever these elites passed by. So, rather than waste time and get their clothes dirty, commoners ducked onto a side street called Pimatgol, which literally translates to ‘Avoid Horse Alley’. Soon enough, Pimatgol got a reputation for another reason as it evolved into a crowded bar and restaurant scene. Pimatgol was at its zenith during the 70s and 80s, and it truly came to represent the juvenile culture of the day. And the introduction of dongdongju to young Seoulites of this era frequently occurred in the boisterous, unpretentious pubs of Pimatgol.”
Of course, Ung Jae is focusing on modern-day Koreans’ relationship to dongdongju. But dongdongju has a much older past: a recipe for the brew can be found in the Eumsik Dimibang (음식 디미방), a cookbook written around 1670 in the middle of the Joseon Dynasty. And there’s reason to believe the drink goes even further back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).
SO, WHAT IS DONGDONGJU EXACTLY?
From the research I’ve done (and, to be fair, what’s out there in English is very limited), dongdongju gets its name from the combination of two words—dong, which means ‘floating’, and ju, which means ‘alcohol’. This name comes from the fact that dongdongju is often served with a few floating grains of rice. One explanation for these errant grains is that, when the batch is ready, the liquor is siphoned or poured off the mash, sucking with it grains of rice along the way. Makgeolli, in contrast, is strained so that only the liquor makes it into your cup. Ung Jae presents a different possibility:
“In some old books, dongdongju is also called bueuiju (부의주), meaning ‘floating ants liquor’. This latter name definitely comes from the floating rice.
The recipe, and my experience of home brewing, suggests that dongdongju is a sort of quick fermentation. That is, dongdongju is danyangju (단양주), or the single fermentation liquor from which makgeolli is derived. However, the liquor is strained from the mash 2-4 days at earliest. Compared with typical brewing, then, dongdongju is a ‘young’, or maybe more accurately, a premature drink. The rice doesn’t break down much this early in the fermentation process which leads to the floating grain particulates at the top of your bowl. Another point of note is that the drink tends to be sweeter and clearer than your average makgeolli.”
While visiting The Sool Gallery in Seoul, I asked the same question of the knowledgeable sommeliers on hand, and their take on dongdongju was strikingly different. They explained that at the end of the makgeolli brewing process, the brew separates into three distinct layers: the bottom layer is takju (탁주), which becomes makgeolli once it is mixed with water; the middle layer is cheongju (청주), which can be drunk as is or distilled to make soju; and the top layer is the remnants of the rice. To get to the clearest, topmost layer of liquid, brewers use a wicker cone device known as a yongsu (용수). This is gently lowered into the brewing vessel to separate the remnants from the cheongju so the cheongju can be easily drawn off. But, because it is made of wicker, a few rice bits get through. Pour the drawn off liquor in a bowl and you’ve got a brew stronger than makgeolli and with a few rice grains floating at the top. In other words, you have dongdongju! (If you scroll down through this blog and this blog, you can see a yongsu in action.)
Despite these explanations, Ung Jae and The Sool Gallery people are quick to point out that in modern times, dongdongju could mean anything to anyone. A lot of brewers like to brand their makgeolli as dongdongju because it sounds appealing or sets them apart from the competition. Some people might just add a handful of rice grains to their brew and call it good, while other brews might not have anything floating in them at all. In other words, when you go looking for dongdongju, it is hard to say just what you will find.
DONGDONGJU FREE-ASSOCIATION TIME
Here are a few other facts that I have noted in the few instances that I have seen or tried dongdongju:
- While it is commercially available, it’s not nearly as common as makgeolli. You might go to several shops before you find a bottle.
- Although this doesn’t appear to always be true, many of the dongdongjus I’ve tried have had a higher alcohol content. If the average bottle of makgeolli is 6%, dongdongju seems to be in the 8-10% range (or even higher). This makes sense if you lean toward The Sool Gallery explanation that dongdongju is just another form of cheongju. (On a side note, a lot of people talk about the headaches they get after a long night of makgeolli drinking. I’ve been fortunate to never experience this, but I have been dongdongjued. And it was not pretty.)
- Dongdongju seems to almost only come in a giant bottle, usually around 1700 ml. Why brewers would put a stronger brew in a bigger bottle, I’m not sure. Unless…
- it’s because this is the drink you find most often at the little joomaks situated on hiking paths. As hiking clubs are legion in Korea, it makes sense that you would need a bigger bottle to make sure everyone got a cup or three. (On a side note, Koreans have certain associations that are unshakeable and one of them is this: Hiking + Makgeolli/Dongdongju = Always)
- A lot of times dongdongju is served in a brown ceramic bowl with a gourd-like ladle (see the image at the top). People might chalk this up to establishments making their own homebrew but I think it is somewhat rare to find homebrews being served in makgeolli houses. Laws are being relaxed regarding this but it’s still too early to tell how the laws will pan out. (Follow this link for a Korean article on the subject.)
- You come across a lot of joomaks, especially ones done in the style of an old minbak (or traditional inn), that only serve dongdongju. Again, I think it’s an associational thing.
- Lastly, I’ve yet to try dongdongju that doesn’t have aspartame as one of the ingredients. If you want to try the real deal, you may just have to make some dongdongju yourself!
If you have any comments, critiques, or just good dongdongju stories, be sure to leave a message in the comments section!