Few realize that soju is one of the best selling spirits in the world
You would be forgiven for not knowing much about one of the world’s best-selling spirits. Although Jinro’s Chamisul soju more than doubles the sales of Smirnoff vodka in volume, the vast majority of that volume is consumed in South Korea. In fact, South Korea leads the world in the consumption of hard liquor by an enormous margin, and soju is central to that phenomenon. And across the Sea of Japan, an equivalent beverage, shochu, has been steadily gaining market share over the last decade. As soju continues to grow in popularity, it’s important to understand the context that created it and the drinking culture that fosters its enjoyment.
Distilling liquor is not a technique indigenous to either South Korea or Japan, and in both countries the word soju or shochu translates identically as “burned liquor,” referring to the heat needed for distillation. In South Korea, the ability to make liquor was transplanted during the Yuan Dynasty — borrowing techniques from Persia and the Levant where arak had become popular. Possibly due to the successful repulsion of invasions during the Yuan Dynasty, Japan became a later adopter, only taking to distillation by the mid-1500s.
Traditionally, soju would have been a single-distillation product made up of a single grain fermentation, most commonly rice although wheat, barley and millet were also used. The process of creating rice wine prior to distillation typically takes 15 days. The nature of this labourious task meant that historically, production was decentralized. In the 1920s, there were more than 3,200 soju distilleries throughout the Korean peninsula. The resulting rice spirit remained above 35 percent alcohol up until the 1960s.
It’s the period leading up to the 1960s that explains this current boom. In rapid succession, Korea dealt with Japanese colonial rule, the division of the country into north and south, the Korean War and the April Revolution. By 1965, it became necessary to prohibit the use of rice in the manufacture of soju in order to ensure the nation’s food supply. This led to relaxed standards for alcohol content and a certain amount of creativity.
Like distilling itself, the sweet potato was a transplant to Korea, and it became instrumental to the production of soju. While the character of soju distilled from grain bases was desirable in a single-distilled liquor, alternative sources of starch required a few more passes to become palatable. The majority of mainstream soju brands don’t engage in distillation at all, acquiring ethanol from a single producer. Multiply-distilled sweet potato ethanol is thus the basis for all non-traditional varieties, and while the prohibition on using rice was lifted in 1991, it is the diluted version that dominates the market.
Since 1965, the alcoholic content of the beverage has been on a steady decline even as sales figures have climbed dramatically. At 20.1 percent alcohol, Jinro’s Chamisul was only introduced in 2002, and managed to dominate the market within 15 years even as Jinro has introduced lower-alcohol variants.
Given that the alcohol all comes from one source, the diluted category depends on a number of factors in order to define flavour profiles. Since ethanol is fairly neutral, the base white spirit is fairly close to vodka in flavour once diluted with water. Of course, depending on the water being used, the minerality will be different between producers. Typically, sugar or an artificial sweetener is added in order to call to mind the sweetness of the rice in traditional versions and to make the soju more palatable. Some versions include citric acid in order to brighten the liquor up with a hint of citrus, while others include small amounts of salt to bolster the mouthfeel. The end result is a vodka-like beverage with additional sweetness, viscosity and an alcohol content that typically sits at about half of vodka’s strength. Other ingredients are used for aroma and flavour, but subtly, as soju is not typically used as a drink for reflection or savouring.
“It would be appropriate to give someone a bottle of whisky as a present,” explained a Korean friend. “If you give someone soju, you’d better be drinking it with them.” The consumption of soju is highly ritualized; but, rather than a sense of formal structure, it provides a sense of communality. “It’s rules upon rules upon no rules.” Although there are a few conventions that seem to be strictly observed (see sidebar), the activity will be largely familiar to anyone who survived an undergrad residence as a series of drinking games.
Soju is best served as cold as possible, as the temperature helps to balance the ethanol sting and sweetness in the body. Since the conventional serving vessel is approximately the size of a shot glass, the taste of the beverage is secondary to the function it performs as a social lubricant. Juice-box-sized containers are available from vending machines and convenience stores for approximately the same price as bottled water. When not consumed communally, soju is typically mixed with water or fruit juice.
There is, however, a movement in both Korea and Japan to return to traditional methods of production. In Korea, this means single distillation from rice, which falls under the category of Andong soju. In Japan, single distillation is more diverse, with a variety of shochu bases. While rice and barley are the most commonly used ingredients for this purpose, retaining the subtleties of those base grains in the flavour of the liquor, some more distinctive ingredients have been given World Trade Organization designations. Satsuma shochu from Kagoshima is made with sweet potato, and tends to have a stronger taste than grain-based versions. These higher-quality artisanal versions are making a push in the market even as the lower-alcohol products gain traction with younger drinkers, perhaps forecasting a decline in the mid-range of the category, which gravitates to around 25 percent alcohol.
Whether you choose to explore the extremely popular range of lower-alcohol soju beverages or the high-end single distillates, there’s one certainty: it is best enjoyed among a group of friends in a spirit of frivolity and fun.
The most important thing about drinking soju is that it should be done in a group. Drinking communally is important to the enjoyment of the beverage to the extent that it is a faux pas to pour your own drink. If someone at the table has an empty glass in front of them, you should ask whether they would like another shot, and then pour it for them with both hands (which is similar to sake in some respects). When on the receiving end of a pour, it is proper to hold your glass with both hands. It is expressive both of gratitude and of presence. At the beginning of a soju session, it is common for the oldest person at the table to pour the first shot. In this instance, the proper etiquette is to receive the pour with both hands, turn your head away (so as not to display your teeth) and down it in one go.