What is soju? Simply put, soju is a clear, distilled, rice based drink from Korea that has long been the world’s most popular liquor. It’s the No. 1 selling liquor by volume, and sales have only been growing in recent years. In terms of potency, Jinro classic soju is 20% alcohol and falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of all alcoholic beverages. Beer has about 5% alcoholic content, wine about 12%, and vodka about 40%.
Everything Korean seems to be cool now – Kpop, Korean dramas, Korean food, Korean cars, Korean appliances, Korean beauty products. Now we can confidently add soju to that growing list. As I was watching Monday Night Football this past week, I was shocked but happy to see a commercial for a certain brand of soju. However, I should not have been that surprised. According to The Spirits Business, Jinro Soju sold 86.3 million cases in 2019—more than any other liquor brand in the world.
Globally, soju sales in 2019 was reportedly $2.650 billion. But this is apparently not new news. You can do a Google search and find articles as early as 2013 describing the world-wide popularity of the Korean spirit.
Growing up in the United States my entire life since the early 1960s, soju was not available. In college, I drank beer like everyone else. As I got older, my taste became more “sophisticated.” I transitioned through many phases – scotch/whiskey, single malt scotch, mai tais, cranberry and vodka, gin and tonic, martinis (shaken with extra olives and extra dirty), and of course, wine.
In the late 1990s, my brother-in-law visited from Korea, and took me to Koreatown for dinner with a friend. During dinner, my brother-in-law and his friend introduced me to soju. At first, I detested the taste, and really did not enjoy the experience. My first impression was that it tasted like cheap vodka.
A Perfect Complement to Korean Food
However, as years transpired, I grew to appreciate soju, especially with Korean food. It enhances the wonderful flavors of Korean cuisine, and at the same time, tempers the spiciness for which Korean food is famous. Whether you are enjoying Korean BBQ with spicy kimchi stews, or munching on Korean friend chicken with fermented daikon radish, soju offers a natural coupling.
The Best Soju
What is the best soju to try? As one studies the beverage menu at a Korean restaurant, it can be confusing to decide what kind of soju you should order. The variety can be overwhelming, but it’s hard to go wrong with the original.
Most people are familiar with the soju in the iconic green bottles which are approximately 12 ounces. Chamisul (Jinro) and Chum Churum are the most well-known and best-selling brands. In the U.S., for a regular green bottle, the price can range from $4 (bought on sale and in bulk), to $18 in a Manhattan Koreatown restaurant.
American-made soju is doing its best to break into the multi-billion market. Brands such as West32 (a shout-out to Manhattan’s Ktown) and Tokki are distilled in New York City.
Traditionally, taking a shot or “shooting” is the typical way of imbibing soju. One does not sip soju. However, if your tolerance for alcohol is not high, feel free to sip.
Also, there are matters of etiquette associated with drinking soju, such as pouring it with two hands to anyone older than you. But such matters of etiquette should be left for another article. Incidentally, soju also has the magical effect of improving your singing abilities at karaoke (at least in your own mind), and conversely increasing your tolerance of other people’s bad, I mean, good singing.
Growing Number of Varieties
Jinro Chamisul is the most popular soju, but for soju aficionados, there are premium brands such as Hwayo and Yobo that are made from “premium rice” according to their marketing materials. Historically, soju was made from rice, but most of the non-premium brands are now made from potatoes or barley as a cheaper ingredient. The premium brands can range from $20 retail for a 750 ml (or 25 ounce, which is about twice the amount of a classic Chamisul bottle) to $50 in a restaurant.
Many people feel that the best soju Soju is the “regular” flavor, which as mentioned before is akin to a less potent form of vodka. However, some companies have been selling fruit flavored varieties such as peach, watermelon, apple, and grape. They are very sweet and thus much easier to drink, especially for beginners. But a note of caution for those inexperienced soju drinkers – the fruit flavors maybe too easy to drink, and the cumulative effect may sneak up on you. The next thing you know, you are belting out a Taylor Swift song in a karaoke room!
Some purists, however, do not enjoy the sweetened version because of the unnecessary sugar and calories, and perhaps the “artificial” taste. As an alternative, some of my friends prefer to order the regular, unflavored soju and ask for slices of lemon or lime, and just inject a squeeze or two of the citrus fruit to add a more natural tasting flavor. Some “pochas” (or Korean styled pubs) offer watermelon infused versions which can be shared by a group of friends sitting at a table. During the summer, this watermelon infused soju can be a refreshing and somewhat healthy beverage.
Indeed, soju is versatile enough to be used to make any mixed cocktails. Instead, of vodka, use premium soju with a splash of cranberry or orange juice. I have even heard that people make Bloody Marys with it. Because it has half the potency of vodka, soju has the potential to become the preferred cocktail spirit.
Another form of mixed drink is called “so-maek,” which is also known as the “soju bomb.” “So-maek” is a combination of soju and maekju (Korean word for beer). If you watch Korean dramas involving college students, you may have watched a scene where a class of students during a freshman orientation bonding session plays a drinking game where one student would take shots of soju and drop them in a glasses or mugs of beer. Some fans of “so-maek” prefer the taste and the less alcohol content (though after massive consumption, it makes no difference). “So-maek” is also popular with Korean fried chicken. I am not a beer drinker so I am not a fan of “so-maek.”
Whatever occasion, not matter what budget you may have, soju provides the perfect beverage of choice when you gather with friends and family!
Andy Hahn resides and works in New York City. Mr. Hahn is often referred to as the Pharaoh of K-Town due to his prodigious patronage of Korean owned businesses in Manhattan.