While rice is usually thought of as a staple grain in meals across the world—from rolls of sushi, to bean bowls, to seafood risotto—Korea also uses it for drinking purposes. Soju is often referred to as “Korean vodka,” and is the most popular alcohol in the world: According to The Spirits Business, Jinro Soju sold 86.3 million cases in 2019—more than any other liquor brand in the world.
The low-alcohol spirit has been distilled in Korea for hundreds of years, usually from rice or other grains. From the 1960s to 1990s, however, using rice to distill soju was banned by the South Korean government because of a nationwide shortage. So soju distillers adapted, using sweet potatoes and other starches instead. Some sojus, like Chamisul, are still made from sweet potatoes.
Soju Always Brings the Party
Starch or grain aside, soju’s the go-to booze for Korean celebrations. Its vaguely sweet, milky flavor makes drinking an entire bottle easy. “In a fun way, it’s kind of a dangerous alcohol,” says Max Soh, general manager and beverage director of New York’s intimate and chic Korean restaurant Oiji. “On average, soju is about 20% ABV, which is between hard liquor and wine. You’re drinking it and it kind of sneaks up on you. The next thing you know, the bottle is gone.”
Soh says the tradition of drinking a bottle of soju is ingrained from a young age. “It’s not the best liquor in the world, but it’s a social thing,” he says. “A little green bottle, shot glasses around. We serve each other and you have to pour it with two hands for older people and you have to receive it with two hands from the older people. There are a lot of little traditions like that.”
How About a Soju Cocktail?
While soju has had a slow start catching on in the U.S., the last few years have seen a study increase in sales, and bars across the country have started playing with it as a cocktail ingredient. Kitchen Story in San Francisco, for example, swaps vodka for soju in its Bloody Mary.
Though Soh runs a Korean restaurant where you would expect to find a variety of soju cocktails, he prefers subbing it in for other ingredients in classic drinks: For instance, he uses it in place of gin in the Hwayo Negroni and for rye whiskey in the Hwayo Vieux Carré, both named for a popular soju brand.
“When I started playing with soju and changing it with other alcohols like whiskey or vodka, it changed the characteristics slightly, but still maintained the more classic cocktail flavor,” says Soh, who advises that the ratio of soju to other ingredients often needs to be increased when using it in place of other spirits, due to its lower ABV.
But in the end, soju’s main purpose is as fuel for fun nights out with friends and family. “When we go out to drink, soju’s always been there,” Soh says. “It doesn’t have any distinctive flavor; it’s not complex at all—that’s why it kind of blends with food. You’re usually getting drunk and really happy and you’re eating at the same time. I think that’s what it comes down to.”