What is Soju?
Ah, Soju, the mysterious Korean liquor that people most often confuse for its Japanese cousin Sake. Though closely related, they are indeed very different, and such distinction is worth noting. We’re here to explain!
The word “soju” translates to “burned liquor” it’s a reference to distillation in Korean. To break it down, it’s got so many variations as a base that it’s hard to define one single ingredient used to make it. More commonly, much like Sake, the base is rice, wheat, or barley.
However, modern producers have taken rice and replaced it with other starches like potatoes, sweet potatoes, or tapioca. That’s a pretty wide range! The same can be said for it’s ABV content is also as variable as it can range from roughly as low as 16 to 53%! So you have to know which soju is either going to get you buzzed or going to put you on your ass.
The rice wine is traditionally fermented for 15 days before it’s ready and the process means boiling the filtered, mature rice wine in a sot (AKA a cauldron) topped with a “soju gori” which is a two-storied distilling appliance with a pipe. Yeah, two stories!
You could say soju is “neutral-tasting” in the same way vodka it, but soju doesn’t have the alcohol burn due to containing nearly half as much alcohol. The flavors vary depending on the main ingredient, but overall it is considered to be on the sweeter side of the spectrum.
It can be sipped straight but in the US it’s gaining a reputation for being an excellent addition to cocktails. Our last review from our friends at Hock + Hoof is proof, there’s a soju revolution upon us.
Thanks to the popularity of Korean food, that began right here in LA, soju is becoming a must-pair with dinners such as Korean BBQ. Due to its wide range of ABV, it can be served in the U.S. under the same license as beer and wine.
Being from such a strong culture, Soju can be fun but has its rules, it’s traditionally consumed and served in a certain manner. The first way to enjoy it is with our second favorite- food! But don’t think of it as some boring liquor that must be paired with specific meals, the general rule of thumb is with fatty foods. Don’t feel like eating and drinking (Ok, weirdo) you can also enjoy a soju shot, or go ahead and drop it into a beer for a “soju bomb.”
Our research online also proved that soju is a “communal drink” meaning, you never serve your own. Then, there are age rules, for your first drink, an older member in the group will pour some soju into a shot glass and hand it to you. Then you must take the shot with two hands, turn your face to the side, avoid all eye contact with whoever served you the glass and shoot it. Weird, but it’s tradition. After the first drink things get a little more laxed, you can sip it if you like but it is more common to shoot.
A Brief History:
Korea’s history might be as foreign to the US as Soju itself, but it seems they keep better records over there because we were able to find it pretty easily. Soju was born in 13th century Goryeo. The technique for distilling it is called the “Levantine” technique. It was an idea introduced to the Korean Peninsula during the Mongol invasion (1231–1259). More specifically, it was the Yuan Mongols who had acquired the technique of distilling arak from the Persians. So through invasion, war, and distilling soju came about and was perfected in South Korea.
Fast forward a few centuries, to the 1920s, over 3,200 soju breweries existed throughout the Korean Peninsula. Then, the government got involved…
Much like the U.S’s prohibition era in the 1960’s the Korean government outlawed Soju higher than 30% ABV. Unlike the U.S. prohibition era, they did this because there was a rice shortage in the country, and still, they didn’t ban the entire liquor the way they did beer in the U.S.
This was also where the different bases for soju came about, people had to get creative! The ban was lifted in 1999 but it has made a “cheap” and a “luxurious” way of defining soju. Nowadays, soju has been in the highest selling liquor list for the last decade, it just hadn’t arrived in the U.S. yet. Fruit sojus have been produced since 2015, which is a great source of inspiration for craft cocktail recipes!
Soju was the No. 1-selling liquor by volume in 2017.
That just goes to show how little we are exposed to eastern hemisphere cultures here in the U.S.
Well, what did you learn? Anything new? Let us know if we missed something in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and as always…