Soju is an incredibly popular spirit that hails from Korea. It’s the world’s number one selling liquor by volume, which is surprising, as many people stateside have never even heard of it. What actually is Soju? And why do people love it so much?
What is soju?
Soju is a clear spirit that hails from Korea. It’s usually 20% to 24% alcohol by volume, which is very light when compared to vodka, which is typically 40% ABV. Soju is very neutral in flavor, like vodka, but doesn’t come with the harsh alcoholic burn. While Soju hails from Korea, it is popular in many Asian countries, such as China and Japan.
The flavor profile of Soju can vary greatly, as there aren’t harsh laws that stipulate what ingredients can be used to make it. In general, Soju tastes similar to vodka but a little more viscous and slightly sweeter.
Soju is unique because it’s a distilled spirit, but it doesn’t follow the “rules” of a traditional distilled spirit. It’s very low in alcohol, which means that in some states, like New York and California, it can be served in restaurants without a specialty liquor license. All that is required is a beer and wine permit.
Because of its low alcohol content, Soju is easy to drink straight and is the basis for a variety of low-alcohol cocktails. Soju can also be used as an alternative to vodka for those who don’t want all the extra liquor. This versatility is part of what makes soju so popular.
The history of soju
Like many spirits, soju has a fascinating history. While soju is considered the national drink of South Korea, it actually had its start elsewhere. Soju originated in Arabia and was originally known as “araq.” The spirit was brought to South Korea by Mongol invaders during the early 13th century. According to legend, Ghengis Khan himself introduced araq to Mongolia, and his grandson, Kublai Khan, brought it to Korea.
Traditionally, soju was made from a base of rice and wheat. However, distilling rice was banned during the Korean War, so distillers started using alternative starches such as wheat, sweet potatoes, and tapioca. Many popular brands of soju still use these starches today.
The traditional way to drink soju
Just like wine, soju is intended to be consumed with food. In fact, Koreans have a whole word for food that is specifically cooked to be eaten with alcohol: “Anju.” In addition to being drunk with food, you must always drink soju communally. You are never supposed to pour your own soju.
Traditionally, an older member of the group will pour some soju into a glass and hand it to you. Once they’ve poured your glass, you take it with both hands, turn your face to the side so that you aren’t making eye contact with the person who handed you the glass, and shoot it! After the first shot, glasses are simply filled when they’re empty. Soju can be sipped, but shooting it is more common.
Why is soju so popular?
There are many reasons soju is popular in Asia and why it’s quickly gaining popularity in other parts of the world. Soju has little to no distinct flavor, which makes it incredibly versatile. It pairs well with a huge variety of flavors and can be mixed into almost any cocktail, thanks to its lower alcohol content.
In fact, soju’s low alcohol content is another thing that makes it so popular. Light beers, low-calorie wines, and alcoholic seltzers are incredibly popular right now, especially in the US. They allow drinkers to enjoy alcoholic beverages without the heaviness, the calories, and the hangovers. You can enjoy a lot of soju without getting intoxicated.
What are the best soju brands to try?
With so many amazing brands of soju on the market, it can be tricky to pick with one to try first. We’ve compiled a list of a few of our favorite brands to help get you started on your soju drinking journey.
Jinro 24 Soju
Jinro is the number one selling brand of Soju in Korea. It comes in a variety of flavors, but we recommend starting with Jinro 24, the original, unflavored, 24% ABV bottle. This soju is light and easy to drink and is carefully distilled for a smooth yet bold taste.
This soju can be sipped on its own or mixed into a cocktail to accompany dinner. It has a subtle character that ensures it won’t overpower the dish it’s accompanying. If you want something a little fruitier, Jinro also makes Strawberry, Green Grape, Grapefruit, and Plum flavors, to name a few.
Tori Kai Soju
Tori Kai Soju is interesting, as it hails from Japan, not Korea. Tori Kai is distilled in small batches, using a pot still, polished rice, and pure spring water. This soju is silky smooth, aromatic, delicious, and very versatile. Like most kinds of soju, it’s wonderful served straight, chilled, or mixed into a variety of cocktails.
Chum Churum Original Soju
Distilled from a mix of grains and rice, Chum Churum Original Soju is another popular Korean brand of soju. What makes Chum Churum unique is that it is made with alkaline water. Alkaline water has small particles that are rich in minerals, which gives Chum Churum a unique, smooth flavor. It’s a great beginner soju, as it has a very low ABV and is moderately sweet.
Kakushigura Aged Barley Shochu
Made from a base of barley and carefully barrel-aged, Kakushigura Aged Barley Shochu is full-bodied and luscious, with aromas of sweet vanilla.
Unlike some kinds of soju, this brand actually offers quite a strong flavor, which mostly comes from the barrel-aging process. It’s recommended to drink Kakushigura on the rocks or with cold water so you can really appreciate the more subtle flavor notes.
Takara Yokaichi Mugi Shochu
Another soju from Japan, Takara Yokaichi Mugi Shochu is very complex and makes a wonderful accompaniment to any meal. It’s has a base of barley and offers savory notes of salt, grilled bread, and buckwheat, along with subtler sweet notes of banana, raspberry, and strawberry. Because of the complex flavors, it’s recommended that this soju be drunk straight or over ice.
Soju cocktail recipes
One of the best parts about soju is its versatility, which allows it to blend so well in a variety of cocktails. Here are a few of our favorite soju-based mixed drink recipes.
Korean Yogurt Soju Cocktail
Yogurt in a cocktail? It might sound strange to Americans, but yogurt-based drinks like Yakult are incredibly popular in Korea and other parts of Asia. Don’t knock it until you try it!
For this recipe, you’ll need:
- 3 oz. soju
- 3 oz. Asian yogurt drink, such as Yakult (which can be found at your local Asian grocery store)
- 3 oz. lemon-lime soda, such as Sprite
To make, add your soju and your yogurt drink to a cocktail shaker filled with ice, and shake until thoroughly chilled. Add your lemon-lime soda and stir. Strain into a cocktail glass and enjoy!
This recipe puts a soju twist on a traditional appletini. Subbing soju for vodka makes the drink much lighter and less alcoholic, so you can have even more of them!
For this recipe, you’ll need:
- 2 oz. soju (apple-flavored, if available)
- 2 oz. seltzer
- 2 oz. apple juice
- Granny Smith apple, for garnish
Combine your soju and your apple juice in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a martini glass, then top with seltzer. Garnish with a slice of Granny Smith, and enjoy.
Cucumber Soju Coolers
Cucumber and soju are a match made in heaven. Soju’s earthiness perfectly complements the flavor of the cucumber, and since soju is so subtle, the flavors can really shine. This cocktail is incredibly refreshing and perfect for summer!
To make this recipe, you’ll need:
- 3 oz. soju
- 2 oz. simple syrup
- 1 oz. lime juice
- ½ cup cucumber
- ¼ cup fresh mint
- A splash of club soda
To begin making this cocktail, combine your cucumber and your mint in a blender or food processor, and puree until smooth. Strain your puree through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any lumps, extracting as much juice as possible.
Add your soju, simple syrup, lime juice, and 2 tablespoons of your cucumber-mint puree to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until thoroughly chilled, then strain into a glass with fresh ice. Top with a splash of sparkling water, serve, and enjoy!
Soju is the world’s best-selling spirit, yet it’s only just starting to gain popularity in the US. It’s light, versatile, and incredibly delicious. It’s amazing in a variety of cocktails, chilled over ice, or even drank straight. There are so many amazing brands of soju out there that you’ll have to start now if you want to try them all!
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