Soju is not only Korea’s most well-known and esteemed spirit, the Jinro and Lotte soju brands are the first and third top selling alcohol brands in the world!
In Korea, which has the world’s highest per capita alcohol consumption, soju controls 97% of the spirits market, and now sells in 80 countries, thanks in part to Korean superstar Psy, the south Korean singer, songwriter, rapper, and dancer known for his videos and performances.
Soju is clear and colorless and its alcohol content by volume varies from 16% to 45% alcohol for traditional Andong soju, with 20% ABV being most common. The spirit is widely consumed because it’s inexpensive, costing 1,000 to 3,000 South Korean Won for a 375mL bottle, or about $3 dollars.
Most brands of soju are made in South Korea from rice, wheat, and barley, but newer producers replace rice with other starches, such as potatoes or tapioca.
Jinro is the largest manufacturer of soju, and the most popular variety of soju is Chamisul, a quadruple-filtered soju produced by Jinro, but Chum-Churum’s market share is rapidly rising.
The Guardian’s Norman Miller claims a pioneering soju outlet at the LA Dodgers baseball arena sold out its supply after three games. “In New York, bars hawk apple soju aperitifs and lychee soju slushies to Big Apple hipsters.”
According to an article that appeared in the JoongAng Daily, “Moving beyond the green blur: a history of soju,” Soju was first distilled around the 13th century, during the Mongol invasions of Korea.
The Mongols had acquired the technique of distilling Arak — any of various strong liquors distilled from the fermented sap of toddy palms or from fermented molasses — from the Muslim World during their invasion of Central Asia and the Middle East, and then introduced the process to the Koreans who set up distilleries around the city of Kaesong.
For roughly 35 years, from 1965 to 1999, the Korean government prohibited the traditional distillation of soju from rice to assuage rice shortages. As a result, a cheaper grade of soju was made from sweet potatoes and tapioca mixed with water, flavoring, and sweetener.
This cheaper method continues to this day, even after the prohibition was removed. The Korean government regulates the alcohol content of diluted soju to less than 35%, but alcohol levels have continued to fall in order to reduce production costs.
Food Parings and Soju Flavors
Chef Won, the Korean chef at Harrods’ Pan Chai restaurant, claims Soju is often drunk with jokbal, a pork trotter cooked in a seasoned, well-flavored broth. “It also goes well with bossam — steamed pork wrapped in a red lettuce leaf with garlic, peppers and kimchi,” said Won.
Soju is also infused with natural fruits to produce different flavors such as watermelon, pineapple, ginger, blackberry, and even mango soju.
Koreans also mix beer with soju. One popular method is to drop a shot glass of soju into a pint of beer like a boilermaker. Another method includes a shot of cola, and a shot of soju mixed with a glass of beer.
An Abominable Killer Snowmen is a popular cocktail containing soju, and consists of 1 oz. soju, 1 oz. Rose’s lime juice, and 1 oz. of sour mix in a highball glass, garnished with a cucumber.