Korean soju: what it is and how to drink it

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Korean soju (소주) is a popular alcoholic drink in South Korea which every Korean has tried at least once in their lifetime. Known in some circles as ‘Korean Firewater’, soju (소주) is without a doubt the most famous and popular alcoholic drink in Korea, which every Korean has tried at least once in their lifetime. In fact, there is no social outing that doesn’t include a few shots of soju, which is an intrinsic part of the Korean culture.

In this article, let’s take a look together at what it is specifically, how it is drunk, and what varieties are available.

What is Korean soju

Soju is a distillate that was originally made from rice. However, due to a rice famine in 1965, the government enforced a ban to stop producers from using rice to make alcohol. Thus the ancestor of the modern soju recipe, of which soju was made from fermented potatoes, was born. Once the emergency situation was over and the ban lifted, the new formula continued to be used, and since then the alcohol obtained from potato fermentation was often mixed with that obtained from rice fermentation. Depending on the amount of use of one or the other, slightly different but nevertheless very similar tastes are obtained. This is where the difference among various brands of Korean soju lies: in the difference in the percentages used.

The pure Korean soju we know today has an alcohol content of around 20%. There are also various types of fruit-flavoured soju. The most common ones are those of grapefruit (자몽, jamong), plum (자두, jadu), white grape (청포도, cheongpodo), peach (복숭아, boksunga), apple (사과, sagwa) and citron (유자, yuja) flavours. New flavours are also launched every now and then, but depending on how successful they are, they do not always remain in circulation for more than a year. The alcohol content of flavoured soju is generally around 13%, which is lower than that of pure soju.

Drinking culture in Korea

Drinking alcohol, and in particular, soju, is a very important aspect of Korean culture. When people gather together, drinking soju is seen as a time of sharing and it is considered impolite to refuse to participate. Those who cannot hold their liquor may rather toast and take just a small sip instead of drinking the whole shot, but refusing to share the moment is considered impolite. These alcohol outings are also very common among colleagues, as they are organised by the company itself to allow the team to feel more united.

The way one pours and drinks also follows a certain etiquette. First of all, you never pour soju for yourself, but pour it for the other diners, and then wait for someone else to pour it for you. If one is with their colleagues, the lowest-ranking person is usually the one who must first pour for everyone else, using his right hand and holding up his arm with his left hand. Once finished, he/she should hold his/her glass out with two hands to drink by turning slightly to the side after toasting with the others.

In a situation where all the diners are hierarchically equal, for example, during an outing with friends, the etiquette is less strict. It is possible to hold the glass and bottle in one hand and it is not necessary to turn slightly around before you drink. However, it remains good manners to pour soju not directly for oneself but for other person(s), and then let another person fill your glass. Soju tends to be drunk in shots and not in small sips, yet this is not imperative. The important thing, however, is not to refill the glass when it is half full, as it should only be refilled when empty.

What to drink Korean soju with

According to Koreans, the winning combination is soju and samgyeopsal (삼겹살), the Korean grilled bacon. However, not with just meat, soju is also great with other dishes. It is drank after dinner in suljip (술집), a kind of Korean pub where people go to drink alcohol and eat snacks or something else. Many also love somaek (소맥), a term created by combining soju and maekeju (맥주), the Korean term for beer. Somaek is in fact a kind of cocktail in which soju and beer are poured and mixed together. The proportions are not rigid, as by adjusting the amount of soju added, they can vary depending on how alcoholic you want to make the drink.

In suljip, it is also very common to see groups of people participating in drinking games using soju as the protagonist. There are several famous games, but the most popular one will be to take the cap of the soju bottle, twist the metal end on itself, and then, take turns hitting it with a snap of the fingers. Depending on the rule, the person who pops the end off will either have to take a shot as a penalty, or will be considered a winner and be allowed to abstain for that round, while everyone else will have to drink.

Cheap and fun – please drink responsibly!

At only 3000-4000 won a bottle at most restaurants and half that price in supermarkets, soju has a reputation of being an inexpensive but enjoyable way to drink. Known as a social drink, it is best enjoyed in a group. People usually drink it whilst eating some great food, unwinding after a long day, and sharing a story or two.

The alcohol content is around 20% so it is an ideal drink to use in such games. It is perhaps not as scary or potentially debilitating as the much stronger shots such as whiskey, tequila, and vodka. These often have alcohol content of more than twice the amount of soju.

Of course, if you are not a drinker you are not obliged to drink. However it is important to understand what the sharing of alcohol symbolizes and its importance in Korean eating and drinking culture. And please drink responsibly!

We hope you enjoyed this article and if you want to know more about Korean culture, keep following the Go! Go! Hanguk blog and do not hesitate to contact us about living and studying in Korea.

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