"You've gotta try this." I've known Sam long enough to distrust this sentence. He gets enthusiastic over newly discovered foodstuffs. Sometimes it's because they're awesome. Sometimes it's because he wants to see the look on my face after I put it in my mouth.
"I found it at the CVS. Here, I kept one in the fridge for you." He passed me an innocent-looking bottle of soda and added ominously, "It tastes way better cold. Like revenge."
"McCol?" I asked, reading the label.
"You'll love it."
"This bottle says to 'spark up.'"
"Just try some."
I took a swig. Sam grinned at my expression. It was like someone had infused Pepsi with a box of Cheerios.
"It's barley soda," he explained, practically giddy.
Grain-based drinks are broadly popular in Korea. Buckwheat, corn, and barley feature in teas and lattes. School lunch is washed down with a cup of tepid grain water. But this was the first time we'd encountered barley soda (an oversight on our part, since they're in every CVS).
I should mention that I've actually developed a taste for grain drinks, so the McCol wasn't so bad. Many of my friends are late-night coffee fanatics, and cafes here don't do decaf. Grain lattes, while sludgy, are the best way to share a hot beverage without suffering toggi jam (rabbit sleep, aka staring at the ceiling at 4am with a caffeine buzz).
And because of the barley, McCol is casually considered a stand-in for beer, an NA option like O'Douls, just with zero alcohol and a lot more sugar. The name McCol (맥콜) is even meant to be a play on the Korean word for beer, maekju (맥주). I, of course, did not realize any of this until I brought some to school for my students' English party. This went about as well as could be expected.
Anyway, as a Korean acquaintance described it, McCol is for those times it's socially unacceptable to drink, but you want the taste of beer. There are some flaws in this logic, the largest being that McCol tastes nothing like Korean beer (it has way more depth and flavor, for one thing).
Additionally, McCol is sometimes considered a "healthy soda" compared to Coke or Pepsi products. This is partially because of the barley, but also because it's advertised to contain vitamins. Take this with a grain of salt--candy is advertised to contain vitamins here. Also, the bottle of McCol in our fridge has the same calorie count as the Pepsi sitting next to it.
So McCol is basically Korean root beer. And like root beer, it's only really enjoyed in its home country. As a root beer enthusiast, I respect it's Korean counterpart and may even drink some from time to time. But after some experimentation (I left one on the counter by accident), I've learned that Sam is right--it's definitely best served cold.