The Makkoli Dive

Johannes Schonherr

Makkoli bar, Seoul.

Chongno Street cuts right through the center of downtown Seoul, right from the Imperial palaces on the western side of the city to Dongdaemun, the Great Eastern Gate. The central areas now known as Kwangwhamun and Chongno formed the commercial district of Seoul in the medieval period.

Back then, Chongno Street proved to be a major headache for the merchants. High dignitaries on their way to or from the palaces used the street quite a few times a day and whenever they did, regular folks had to stop doing what they were doing and go down on their knees by the roadside. This, of course, disrupted business quite a bit.

Thus, the merchants built a tiny parallel alley on the northern side of Chongno Street. They called it Pimatgol and it is still there today. Not the original buildings, mind you, but the alley.

Pimatgol, created in a spirit of defiance, is now home to small eateries, raucous bars, and cheap guesthouses, and the inhabitants are still fiercely defiant towards their governmental overlords.

This being downtown Seoul and therefore prime real estate, the city government is bent on tearing down the area and replacing it with concrete and glass towers of the kind that already have turned so many areas of the modern city into faceless high-rise wastelands.

Not immediately threatened by demolition are the northern reaches of Pimatgol towards Insadong-gil, the street that Seoul promotes as a center of the arts. On Insadong-gil, the galleries line up, there are open-air concert spots and plenty of souvenir shops. But it's the old alleys that are really interesting.

Makkoli bar, Seoul.
Makkoli bar Seoul.

The best place to visit in the alleys and to get a taste of old Seoul is a vintage makkoli dive, housed in an old wooden building. Makkoli is often referred to as "Korean rice wine." Actually, it's fermented rice skillfully processed to end up as a milky-white drink with a finely tuned sweet / sour / bitter taste and an alcohol content of about seven percent. The fermentation process is basically the same as the one for Japanese sake - just that the makkoli is not filtered. (The unfiltered doburoku sake available in Japan is very similar to makkoli.)

Makkoli has been made in Korea for at least a thousand years. Nowadays, you can buy it in plastic bottles at convenience stores. But that way it just doesn't taste right. Makkoli should be drunk the traditional way - from a bowl.

That's exactly how it is served at the makkoli dive in the alley off Insadong-gil. Now, you would certainly like to know the name of the place but it simply doesn't have one.

Kim Aeh-ja, the old lady who has been running the bar for the last 23 years commented one night: "This place has been in operation since 1947 and in all that time, it never had a name." It does have plenty of nicknames though, the most popular being Kogaljib which translates as Grill Fish House.

Recently, they put up a sign but that simply states a generic Pimatgol Jujeom (Pimatgol Tavern) and nobody ever calls the place that name.

Enter the wooden shack with its graffiti-covered walls and take a seat. You don't have to order anything. A big bowl of makkoli will quickly arrive at your table, along with a fried fish and smaller bowls with which you can fetch the drink of the house from the larger bowl.

Makkoli bar Seoul.
Makkoli bar Seoul.
Makkoli Dive, Seoul.
Makkoli Dive, Seoul At Night.

Take a few gulps, relax and look around. Yes, this place is old, shabby, noisy and it will quickly feel like home. The customers come from a wide range of Korean society - from rebellious students to business types relaxing after a hard day at work, to people just having a great night out, to hard-drinking parties of army veterans. The place may look rough but everyone gets along in here.

Look towards the entrance area, you will notice that the wooden walls there are newer. This part has been rebuilt after a fire devastating the bar in June 2007. The fire reduced the size of the establishment by a couple of tables and provided it with an unwanted outdoor area. The city government did not permit the full reconstruction of the burned-down areas.

But the inner part of the bar remained unharmed and original. Most importantly, the old tank containing the precious white stuff you are imbibing has remained unscarred. Every few hours, a refill is delivered from the source nearby where the makkoli is made solely for this joint.

Makkoli dive, Seoul.
Insadong sign, Seoul.

Finished your first bowl already? Order another one. This however will not come with a fried fish attached. If you want to continue eating, you have to check the menu now. It consists of a few vintage photocopies posted on the walls and it's only in Korean. Bring a local friend.

Try the golbengi. That's snails in a sort of spicy salad. But be prepared - this dish is really spicy. But there's an easy way to deal with it - wash it down with more of the delicious house makkoli. Drink it up in this wonderful place as long as you can. It won't take very long till sleek new buildings will creep up close-by.

Getting there: Walk up Insa-dong-gil from Chongno Street, near the 7-11 convenience store you will see a sign pointing towards an alley and saying: "Insadong 11 (sibil) gil." Enter that alley, the makkoli dive is on the first bend.

Opening times: daily from 6pm to late in the night
Phone: (+82) 2 723-9046
Prices: Bowl of makkoli for two: 4000 Won
Bowl of makkoli for three: 6000 Won
Grilled fish: 8000 Won (always served with first bowl)

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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