The Korea Herald


[Grace Kao] How makgeolli signals virtue in K-dramas

By Korea Herald

Published : March 26, 2024 - 05:27

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Makgeolli, a milky-colored and lightly carbonated type of Korean rice wine, is a common topic of conversation in our household. Since 2015, my husband, Jeff Rubidge, has been brewing and uploading videos about makgeolli for his YouTube channel. It is a modest drink that only requires three ingredients to brew: rice, nuruk (a Korean fermentation starter) and water. It can be purchased for less than US $2 per bottle in Korea. I have also noticed its role in signaling virtue in K-dramas. Let me explain.

One of the distinctive features of the Korean diet is the importance of fermented foods. Even Americans not familiar with Korean food know that every Korean meal includes kimchi. Of course, kimchi is just one of the many Korean foods with a fermented element (think of doenjang, or soy bean paste, and the many banchan that include fermented ingredients). Makgeolli is a fermented rice wine that was commonly made at home. During the Japanese occupation, makgeolli was first taxed and eventually banned in 1934. Arguably, makgeolli is viewed as a nationalistic and traditional liquor associated with farmers, college students and the working class, rather than the elite.

When I first began watching K-dramas, I noticed that the drink of choice for most characters was soju or beer (and sometimes both mixed together). On a date, the characters might enjoy coffee at a cafe or wine with their Italian meals. Rich chaebol families or politicians corrupted by money and power drink expensive Western spirits. Every so often, makgeolli would appear and signal the virtue and incorruptibility of its drinkers.

“Vincenzo” has made effective use of makgeolli to signal virtue and “Korean-ness.” Vincenzo (played by Song Joong-ki), the lead character, is a Korean adoptee who was moved to Italy as a child. In Episode 2, upon his return to Korea as an adult, he drinks makgeolli for the first time with the honest lawyer Hong Yu-chang (Yoo Jae-myung). While consuming makgeolli together, Hong Yu-chang talks about how the powerless need to be defended. “When they have no one left to lean on. I can still be there to grab onto. I am their last straw.” He then tells Vincenzo he seems more genuine today -- and the makgeolli signals this shift. It also suggests that Vincenzo is becoming more Korean.

In Episode 3, he is again drinking with Hong Yu-chang. Vincenzo warns him, “You’re in no man’s land, completely exposed -- so swallow your pride. Back down and lick your wounds.” Hong Yu-chang replies, “My pride is not on the line, innocent lives are.” The lawyer shows no fear. They drink at least six bottles of makgeolli during this dinner. That evening, a truck rams into the restaurant, killing Hong Yu-chang. In Episode 10, Vincenzo drinks makgeolli with his love interest Hong Cha-young (the daughter of Hong Yu-chang). She was formerly estranged from her father and worked for the evil Wusang law firm. Now, she has transitioned to being a virtuous person and her shift is signaled by her consumption of makgeolli. Vincenzo tells her that her father “wanted someone to fight the righteous fight” and that Hong Cha-young was that person.

Of course, Vincenzo and Hong Cha-young are also honoring her incorruptible father by drinking makgeolli. This sentiment also appears in the K-drama “Beyond Evil.” In Episode 11, after Nam Sang-bae (the Chief of Police, played by Chun Ho-jin) is murdered by the villains, his teammates celebrate his life by drinking makgeolli at a Korean barbecue restaurant. They reminisce about the last time they had makgeolli with the police chief.

Virtue and innocence can also be conveyed using makgeolli. In Episode 13 of “Taxi Driver” (Season 2), the story of the nightclub Black Sun (a thinly-veiled reference to the Burning Sun scandal) continues. In the Black Sun club, wealthy customers drink expensive bottles of Cristal champagne while taking illicit drugs. Some of these patrons also drug and rape women. In a funny scene in this dark episode, the Taxi Driver crew (which serves to dish out revenge in the show) brings a group of older and less trendy customers to the club -- they appear in contrast to the rich, young, criminal and amoral clientele of the club. Instead of drinking gold bottles of Cristal, they consume white bottles of makgeolli.

A great use of makgeolli to signal incorruptibility is in the political K-drama, “Chief of Staff‘’ starring Lee Jung-jae (familiar to Americans due to “Squid Game”). In Episode 4 of Season 1, the extremely corrupt Assemblyman Song Hee-seop (Kim Kap-soo) throws a bowl of makgeolli to the ground and shouts: “Do you know what I first threw away when I became an assemblyman? My sense of shame. You can be in politics only after throwing that out.”

My advice is this -- if you need to know whether someone is virtuous in Korea, pay attention to what they’re drinking. At least, if you’re a character in a K-drama.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. -- Ed.