Known in some circles as ‘Korean Firewater’, soju (소주) is without a doubt the most famous and popular alcoholic drink in Korea.
It is ingrained in Korean lifestyle and truly embodies a lot of what Korean culture is all about. Whilst makgeolli (막걸리) and beer also both play significant roles, it is the drinking of soju that symbolically goes hand in hand with Korean dining culture. It is a drink that is enjoyed by both men and women throughout Korea. Soju provides an excellent counter taste to a lot of Korean foods and is seen as an excellent side companion for many Korean dishes such as samgyeopsal (삼겹살, pork belly).
Even though soju doesn’t seem to share a similar international recognition as drinks such as whiskey or gin, it might surprise you that it sells a lot better worldwide. In fact, Jinro Soju, has sat on the top of total sales charts for several years. This brand alone is reported to have sold over 75 million 9 litre cases in 2018! These figures suggest that soju is really making a mark across the globe! The reputation and demand for soju is certainly on an upward trend worldwide. However, these impressive sales numbers are still mainly attributed to soju’s great significance in Korea and the sheer amount that is consumed domestically.
The taste of soju – simple but effective
Perhaps soju doesn’t conjure up the same sophisticated air as wine, a finely aged whiskey, or a Japanese sake, but Koreans and fans of soju are fine with this. It is a drink that doesn’t need to take on these pretentious airs. The appeal is in its simplicity, you know what you are getting, so there is no need to worry. Just enjoy the experience.
Usually soju has somewhat of a neutral, smooth taste which some describe as being similar to a weak but slightly sweet vodka.
Originally, the Andong soju recipe comes from rice and grains. Due to a shortage of rice, a government ban in 1965 caused a change in the fermentation process and led to the modern-day recipe. This recipe uses distilled ethanol fermented from the starch in sweet potatoes. Both varieties are still manufactured today with often a mix of the two processes. Different brands use different combinations of grains and starches to conjure up their own recipes.
There have been some recent attempts to distill craft varieties. People have experimented with various ingredients and fermentation processes to create ‘fancy’ soju recipes. It is becoming quite a popular ingredient in cocktails worldwide. As a result you will find many various fruit flavours of soju ranging from blueberry to grapefruit and pomegranate. Despite these efforts the most popular variety is still pure, unadulterated, standard soju. It has and will continue to stand the test of time in the hearts and minds of Koreans.
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.
Many drinking games revolve around the drinking of soju. It helps to spark conversation and create a lively atmosphere. Everyone seems to have a favourite drinking game to be played whilst drinking soju. One popular game involves using the bottle cap. Take the cap and twist the metal at the end so that it sticks straight out. Players take turns flicking the metal end as hard as they can to make it detach from the cap. Whoever manages to do so is exempt from drinking their drink.
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.
There are many different ways to drink soju. It is usually poured as a shot but is also often diluted with some sort of mixer. SoMaek (소맥, an abbreviation of Soju and Maekju – the Korean word for beer) is created by mixing beer with soju and has become an increasingly popular.
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.