Soju 101: Everything You Need to Know
While the rules of drinking in the Olympic Village vary based on what country the athletes are from (Canada lets their athletes drink as much as they want, while the United States prohibits drinking entirely), most athletes are given the freedom to roam the host city, which for this year’s 2018 Winter Olympics is PyeongChang, South Korea. But if the Olympians make it into the city for a drink, they shouldn’t expect to find shelves overflowing with vodka, gin or whiskey. Instead, they’ll find lots and lots and lots of soju. The Korean booze is almost exclusively consumed in the region, and for good reason. High-quality soju is a delicious, near-neutral spirit that makes for a delightful alternative to vodka, and it deserves more attention in the United States (especially considering it outsells most every other spirit on Earth). If the world’s sudden spike in cacaçha following the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil is any indication, soju may be about to explode stateside. Learn everything you need to know about soju now, so you can be a proper hipster who drank it before it was cool.
Soju is (probably) the most popular spirit in the world
We say “probably” only because reports flip flop between naming soju and baiju (a Chinese spirit) the most popular in the world. As of 2016, Drinks International gave the crown to soju, with Jinro soju being the No. 1 selling spirit brand in the world at 73.9 million 9-liter cases sold. Regardless of whether soju or baiju is on top, this all may come as a surprise to Westerners, who may assume that ubiquitous vodka or their beloved whiskey would be the most popular booze in the world. Those people neglect the sheer number of people living in Korea, China and the other countries in that part of the world. In South Korea specifically, which has one of the world’s highest per capita alcohol consumption, soju makes up 97 percent of the spirits market.
And just to clear up a common misconception before we go any further: no, shochu and soju are not the same thing. Shochu is a Japanese spirit that hasn’t been around nearly as long as soju, which goes back centuries.
Soju can be made from rice, wheat, sweet potatoes and tapioca
People who have passing knowledge of soju usually think that all soju is made from sweet potatoes, which account for its famed sweetness. However, soju is traditionally made from rice. Back in the 13th century, Mongol invaders brought arak’s distillation techniques to the ancient kingdom of Goryeo, which came to be known as Korea. But in the 1950s during the Korean war, distilling rice was banned. So resourceful Koreans started making the spirit with sweet potatoes instead, in addition to other starches like wheat and tapioca. The ban on rice was lifted during the 1990s, but many soju brands stick to what they now consider to be their traditional recipe, whether that be with sweet potatoes or another starch. Customers have also become accustomed to the sweet, viscous taste that sweet potatoes bring to soju. Premium soju brands, however, typically use rice nowadays, and taste a lot more floral and clean, like a nice sake.
Soju tastes like sweeter vodka
Whether it’s made with sweet potatoes, rice or another starch, all soju is on the sweeter side of spirits. This doesn’t mean it tastes like a sugar bomb; soju is still considered a neutral spirit. The sweetness is subtle and it’s usually described as buttery or malty. But just like a cheap vodka, or any other bottom shelf spirit for that matter, the lower end of the soju spectrum has consequences. Cheap soju can taste and smell like gasoline, especially because of the lax laws surrounding its production; avoid it at all costs or risk swearing off the spirit forever. Another characteristic soju has in common with vodka: People love flavoring it. There are almost as many wild and fruity soju flavors available in South Korea as there are crazy vodka flavors, and some of them are even sold in juice-box form.
Soju is a lot less boozy than most spirits
A typical vodka ranges from 40 to 50 percent ABV, but a soju can range from 16 to 45. Since most soju is lower proof, it is technically considered a rice wine by legal standards (even though it isn’t one). This creates a loophole that restaurateurs can use to skirt liquor licensing laws. If they only have the jurisdiction to sell beer and wine, they can usually get away with selling soju, which means they can use it as a replacement for vodka or gin in cocktails like a Bloody Mary. Soju’s lower proof also makes it poised for a popularity boom in the U.S., as health-minded Americans become more and more obsessed with low-ABV alternatives to their favorite cocktails. But be careful—just because it isn’t super boozy, doesn’t mean a few consecutive shots of soju won’t catch up to you. And a soju hangover is no joke.
Soju and food are soulmates
While pairing spirits with food is notoriously tricky, soju is actually meant to be enjoyed with a meal. Just like with wine, soju and food have a mutually beneficial relationship, highlighting unique aspects in each other and playing up different flavors on the palate. Soju can temper seriously spicy flavors or bring out the richness in umami-forward dishes. If you’d like to take a “when in Seoul” mentality, pair soju like the Koreans do with street food classics like tteokbokki (spicy fish and rice cake), samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly), jokbal (pork trotter cooked in broth) and pretty much anything that has funky kimchi in it. Seek out Korean barbecue restaurants that have devoted soju menus; that’s a sure sign the food will be good too.
Soju has a very complex drinking tradition
Many Asian beverages from alcohol to tea involve complicated rituals around consumption, and soju is no different. Soju is a very communal drink meant for social occasions, so you should never pour your own soju. Instead, the oldest member of the group will pour a glass and hand it to you. You are then supposed to take the shot with two hands, face away from the person who served it to you so you don’t make eye contact, and shoot it back in one go. After the pressure of the first drink is over with, things loosen up. Fill up each others glasses going around the table, and sip it if you must (but soju’s low-ABV means Koreans typically shoot it no matter what.) Another fun tradition—still sometimes observed but no longer necessary—is shaking and swirling the bottle. Back in the day, this was done to break up and incorporate the sediment that had gathered at the bottom of the bottle as a result of not-very-pure distillation techniques. Nowadays, the sediment no longer exists, but some people will still shake the bottle, swirl it to create a whirlpool, or even do tricks with it, flair bartending style. No matter what traditions you choose to observe, just be sure to have one phrase memorized: gonbae, or, cheers!