What France Can Teach Korean Liquor Makers

      March 04, 2010 12:47

      Park Soon-wook

      France is the largest agricultural producer in Europe with the most farmland among EU nations. Its no. 1 agricultural export is wine. As of 2008, wine represented 14 percent of total exports and 14.7 percent of total agricultural production output. But the land used for growing grapes takes up just 3 percent of total farmland, meaning the added value from making wine is enormous.

      All French wine is made from French grapes. Since 1935, France has employed the appellation d'origine contrôlée, a system to certify the geographic origin of its agricultural products. Of course, even grapes grown in France vary according to climate and soil conditions, and the French like their wines to embody the resulting characteristic qualities. High-end wines must be labeled with information about where the grapes were grown. For example, AOC Bordeaux wine can be produced with only grapes from that region.

      France is not the only country to insist that only its own raw materials are used for its alcoholic products. German beer contains only domestically grown barley, as does Scotch whiskey. Japan has gone a step further, having developed 80 kinds of rice for the production of sake. The best sake is made from rice cultivated in a certain region, to maximize its marketing potential.

      But traditional Korean liquors have strictly speaking no nationality. Almost 93 percent of the rice and wheat used in the production of makgeolli and yakju is imported. Since China became the major source of imports, it has become difficult to say whether makgeolli is Chinese or Korean. This is an embarrassment. With so much emphasis on cutting costs and little to none on brand management, it was inevitable that Korea would be left without a national liquor that compares in quality with those of other countries.

      Some liquor makers using imported materials argue that the government encourages the practice by opening the rice market to cheap imports. But nothing compels liquor makers to use imported rice. Moreover, with the popularity of makgeolli spreading in Japan and out to the rest of the world, there is more pressure to be ready. Never before has makgeolli been more popular internationally. If it is to become more than just a passing fad, Korea needs to rethink the processes.

      A look at other countries' traditional liquors provides some good lessons. French wine becomes more expensive as the origin becomes more specific: Médoc wine from the Bordeaux region is more expensive than mere Bordeaux, and Pauillac wine from Médoc is more expensive than Médoc. The locality should also become a feature of Korean alcoholic products and should be defined specifically. For example, makgeolli made with Yong-in rice or Pocheon rice ought to be regarded more highly than similar products made with Gyeonggi rice. Korean liquor will become more competitive as it becomes more region-specific. And developing special kinds of rice for the production of alcoholic beverages would also improve the diversity of the crop.

      By Park Soon-wook from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

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