A Drink That Dates Back 2,000 Years Is Making a Comeback Thanks to One Woman

Carol Pak is recognized as one of the 2023 "Food & Wine" Drinks Innovators of the Year.

Carol Pak

Heehyun Oh

With a background in market research in the U.S. and Asia, Carol Pak knew exactly what kind of new beverage product might thrive in today’s drink scene: a canned, low-ABV, flavored drink that wasn’t bitter. And in 2017, while on a family trip to Korea, she found the perfect candidate in makgeolli, a cloudy-white, sparkling, sweet, and tangy fermented rice drink that’s been brewed and consumed in Korea for over 2,000 years. Pak suspected Korea’s oldest alcoholic beverage could succeed in America. But makgeolli had a stigma: It was known for being low quality, for being sold cheaply in large plastic bottles, and for causing god-awful hangovers.

Makgeolli was “a drink for the people,” says Pak. That reputation led to its fall in popularity. “As Korea grew out of poverty, we found influences from abroad, and people didn’t want to be associated with a poor man’s drink.” But Pak had noticed a shift — young people were becoming intrigued by makgeolli because of its role in Korean tradition and culture, and they were looking for high-quality alternatives to the mass-market brands.

See all of Food & Wine Drinks Innovators of the Year 2023

Back in the U.S., Pak founded her company, Sool, and began testing recipes for makgeolli with her mother in Queens, New York. After months of trial and error, she came up with a recipe for a canned makgeolli, which she named Màkku. It used three ingredients: steamed rice, water, and a fermentation starter called nuruk. At first, “It was me, my friends, and my family canning, pasteurizing, and shipping all the makgeolli we made,” she recalls. But with additional funding from a venture capital firm, Pak found a Korean brewery that was able to produce, can, and pasteurize Màkku for her.

Then came the question of launching not just an unknown brand, but an effectively unknown drink category in the U.S. market. “If you look at oat milk or hard seltzer,” Pak says, “those brands all built their companies for years before there was any talk of the actual product.” Not to mention, many of those companies had budgets in the tens of millions, whereas Sool has raised a total of $3.5 million. Pak had nothing but customer enthusiasm to spread the word.

Enthusiasm can go a long way, though. In January 2020, Sool began selling Màkku to Korean restaurants and to a few stores. When the pandemic shuttered the restaurant business, Pak took to social media to help preserve her brand and sold nearly 2 million cans of Màkku makgeolli during the pandemic. Today, Sool has national reach, and Pak expects to hit profitability this year. As for what’s next? Pak has her eyes set on expanding the brand domestically — think Màkku in Whole Foods, Target, and more — with distribution globally by 2025.

Cans to Buy

Màkku Mango ($56 for 16 12-oz. cans)

Made with mango puree, flavored Màkku has a pastel orange hue and pure mango flavor; it’s a total winner.

Màkku Lite ($56 for 16 12-oz. cans)

Launched in 2022 after fans asked for a lighter alternative, Màkku Lite is made with 40% less sugar than the original. The result is a refreshing, lively drink with a lightly sweet and tangy flavor. At 6% ABV, it’s an easy sipper.

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