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“Soju is the most fascinating spirit no one knows about,” says Kyungmoon Kim, a master sommelier and the founder of KMS Imports. Though known in the U.S. as a low-cost, boozy accompaniment to a Korean meal, soju has an illustrious history. “In Korea, we’ve been brewing rice for over 2,000 years and distilling that rice brew since the 13th century,” notes Kim. For generations, small farmstead distilleries made artisan spirits, using pot stills and their own wheat-based yeast starter called nuruk.
Home distilling declined in the early 1900s when Japan annexed Korea and confiscated rice harvests, says Korean rice wine sommelier Jisung Chun. “Then, following the Korean War, the country was so poor that there was not enough rice to eat, so it was banned for use in alcohol.” Artisans stopped producing, and in their place, “large producers came up with cheap grains, fruits, sweet potatoes—any starch they could find to produce soju.” The results were diluted to less than 20% alcohol and made palatable with artificial sweeteners. “That gave rise to today’s cheap, green bottles,” Chun explains.
These “green bottle” sojus might be mass-produced, but they do serve a purpose, says Sung Joon Koo, bartender at Phoenix’s Bitter and Twisted Cocktail Parlor. During group dinners when the rituals of Korean drinking—sharing, toasting, pouring for one another—they are integral to the evening. “Served extremely cold,” he says, “a lot of commercialized brands are perfect to drink with something fatty, spicy, or salty.”
Nevertheless, since Korea’s economic boom in the 1990s, artisanal soju has made a comeback. Longtime family distillers are lauded as national treasures, and young artisans have returned to traditional, rice-based production. Sojus made this way, says Kim, “have a better mouthfeel, and they’re sweeter and softer.”
The new artisan labels are only now landing in the States, thanks to Kim. But there are still sojus here available to enjoy right now. To help take the guesswork out of picking the right ones, our industry experts have chosen what they deem to be the best soju bottles to drink this year.
Best Overall: Hwayo 41
Region: Korea | ABV: 41% | Tasting Notes: Sweet rice cake, Oil
“Before Hwayo, there wasn’t much pure rice soju other than from very small distilleries,” says Kim. Using local rice and a combination of pot and pressurized stills, Hwayo achieves a traditional soju with a “clean, refined flavor.” Though its higher ABV makes it cocktail-worthy, Kim suggests sipping it neat or over ice to experience “all the purity of the rice.” Koo finds it “very round” with a clean, sweet vodka-like aroma. “The first note coats your tongue, and the finish lingers because of the sugar,” he says. “It’s what rice cake would taste like in liquid form.”
Related: The Best Sake
Best Budget: Jinro Chamisul Fresh Soju
Region: Korea | ABV: 16.9% | Tasting Notes: Vodka-like, Clean, Muted
There’s a reason that Jinro—the brand that sold 86.3 million cases in 2019—is the world’s biggest liquor brand. “These literally cost like a dollar in Korea,” says Koo. So what’s stopping anyone from drinking it? At less than 17 percent alcohol, it’s “very clean and easy drinking,” he says. “Think of very soft vodka: There’s almost no taste.” Its cost and approachability makes it “perfect for sharing,” Koo notes. “It’s always meant to be consumed while sharing food with a group of people.”
Best for Cocktails: Hemosu Pine Forest
Region: Korea | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Herbal, Spicy pine, Aromatic honey
According to Koo, this aromatic soju is produced by distilling spruce and pine needles with the rice, then topping the distillate with a pine needle tea. The result is a soju with a drier, spicier pine finish.
“It’s not gin,” he says, “but it has very herbaceous botanical notes that work really well in a martini.” Koo’s go-to is a 2:1 Hemosu and blanc vermouth formula with a touch of sesame oil as a garnish. Kim agrees that “a pine-infused soju can replace any gin cocktail because the pine showcases a refreshing juniper-like characteristic.”
Best for Beginners: Chum Churum
Region: Korea | ABV: 17% | Tasting Notes: Lactic acid, Anise, Soft, Clean
“Any green bottle that’s really, really cold is great for beginners,” says Koo. “But one cool thing about Chum Churum is they use alkaline water.” So when you shake the soju bottle, as per tradition before opening and sharing it, “the softer this one will be,” he says. “When I drink it with my friends, it’s very easy. No one’s going to dislike it.”
Best Flavored: Chum Churum Soon Hari Yogurt Soju
Region: Korea | ABV: 12% | Tasting Notes: Yogurt, Candy, Light, Sweet
Koo recalls that, when he was young, a favorite treat among children was a yogurt drink that came in tiny orange bottles. Once he was drinking age, his friends used to mix that yogurt drink with soju for house parties. “Now there’s this flavored version, and it’s incredible,” he says. “It tastes like candy, and it’s such low proof, I can drink it any day.” Served as a highball with a touch of soda or tonic water, Koo says, “I’m all about it.”
Best American: Tokki
Region: New York | ABV: 33% | Tasting Notes: Mushrooms, Earth, Fruit, Flowers
Tokki is the United States’ first soju, made using only organic sticky rice, reverse-osmosis water, and a Korean-style nuruk for the yeast starter. It is the handiwork of New Yorker Brandon Hill, who earned a degree in artisanal fermentation practices in Seoul. It is closer, says Kim, to a traditional soju than anything in a green bottle. Hill is so dedicated to the art that, word has it, he’s moving the distillery to Korea.
Best Aged: West 32 Reserve
Region: New York | ABV: 32% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, White pepper, Baking spice
Rested for six months in re-used bourbon and rye barrels, this New York-produced bottle gets Thomas Oh, general manager at Chicago’s Perilla, “excited to share the versatility and range that soju can offer.”
Its “light whiskey profile,” “great texture,” and interesting character work well in cocktails, he says. “It has aromatics of lemon, pear, baking spices; and layers of spice and white pepper on the palate,” notes Oh, but it finishes “smooth and clean.”
Related: The Best Flavored Vodkas
Best Innovative: Yobo Soju
Region: New York | ABV: 23% | Tasting Notes: Crisp, clean, grape fruitiness
Named after a Korean endearment (like “honey” or “sweetheart”), this unique soju, says Chun, is “quite interesting.” Produced in New York’s Finger Lakes region using local wine grapes, it’s technically a brandy, “but since there is no regulation on soju here, they can call it soju,” says Chun. Declaring it “very clean but with grape fruitiness coming through,” Chun says it’s “great for any fruit-based cocktail, though it’s easy to drink mixed with soda, too.”
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Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. While reporting for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure, she spent quality time in Jalisco’s agave fields watching piñas be harvested, and in distilleries watching them be rendered into the elixir that is tequila. Drinking at the side of master distillers, crawling the bars of Guadalajara and Tequila, she acquired a taste for, and a keen interest in, Mexico’s premiere spirit—especially the añejos and extra-añejos, which are always how she likes to end a meal.