Here's Why You Should Try Soju, the World's Top-Selling Spirit
If you've only ever consumed the occasional green bottle of soju at a Korean barbecue restaurant, it may come as a surprise to you that soju is the top-selling spirit in the world. While it's often characterized in the U.S. as a watered-down vodka or Korea's answer to sake, there's so much more to soju than these comparisons; it's truly a category unto itself.
Soju literally translates to "burning liquor," which refers to how it is made, not its flavor, which can range from crisp and dry to floral and fruity. The clear spirit traditionally calls for three ingredients: rice, water, and nuruk (a wheat or rice bran containing yeasts that jumpstart fermentation). In 1965, postwar crop shortages led the South Korean government to prohibit the use of rice in soju, which forced producers to substitute other starches, including barley, sweet potato, wheat, and tapioca. In order to maximize profits, they also began diluting the spirit with water and adding sweeteners and flavorings. Even after the rice ban was lifted in 1999, the changes stuck: Most of Korea's mass-produced soju, such as Jinro's Chamisul ($15.25, drizly.com) and Lotte Chilsung's Chum-Churum ($13.49, drizly.com), still use sweet potato and are lower proof.
However, in recent years, "as industrial soju continues to flourish, traditional soju makers have tried to spark a revival with some success," writes Hyunhee Park in Soju: A Global History ($78.24, walmart.com). As a result, there are two types of soju available today: The first is the lower-ABV (18 to 25 percent), mass-market soju in green bottles that can be found at every Korean restaurant and grocery store; the second is the higher-ABV (40 to 50 percent) artisanal soju, which is typically made in smaller batches and goes through the traditional process of fermentation, filtration, and distillation.
Kyungmoon Kim, a master sommelier and the former beverage director at Michelin-starred modern Korean restaurant Jungsik in New York City, says, "People in the U.S. often only think of soju as a diluted vodka or a cheap neutral spirit, but they haven't experienced well-made artisanal soju, which deserves recognition for its craftsmanship." He is spearheading the effort with his company KMS Imports, which started shipping premium soju from family-run distilleries in Korea, such as Samhae and Solsonju ($44.99, woorisoul.com), to New York in 2020 and has since expanded to D.C., New Jersey, California, Washington, Louisiana, and Missouri. Kim sees craft soju having the same kind of trajectory as mezcal in America: "It's amazing how far mezcal has come in the past 10 to 15 years. There are so many unique stories about mezcal that people are curious about now, and soju can definitely follow similar footsteps."
This isn't to say that there isn't a time and place for the ubiquitous green-bottle soju. Katie Rue, the owner of New York's Reception Bar, says, "It's super drinkable, fun, and convenient. The brilliance behind green-bottle soju is that it's distilled as strong as other liquors, but water and citric acid are added at the end to lower the ABV, so it's already a cocktail without any effort." The lower alcohol content means it also lends itself well to mixing. Rue favors Jinro 24 ($10.99, drizly.com) for most of Reception's cocktails because the clean, straightforward liquor is a great carrier for the Korean ingredients she has made it her mission to showcase at the bar. She infuses the spirit with everything from Korean green peppers and fresh mugwort to osmanthus and white lotus, then builds on the delicate flavors that result. For more pronounced rice notes in cocktails, Rue opts for Hwayo (From $28.99, drizly.com), a traditionally distilled soju from Korean ceramics brand Kwangjuyo that comes in 17 percent, 25 percent, 41 percent, and 53 percent ABV.
When it comes to stocking your bar cart, start with a lower proof if you're new to soju and work your way up. You'll most likely find soju next to sake and shochu at your local liquor store, and you can also order soju online in most states. As the soju market continues to grow, a few American makers have also joined the shelf with nontraditional offerings, including Yobo ($36.99, wine.com), a brandy-like soju distilled from grapes in the Finger Lakes, and West 32 ($19.99, drizly.com), a corn-based soju produced in New York that is more akin to an unaged bourbon.
Soju is customarily served chilled and consumed straight in shot glasses alongside food, from the drinking snacks known as anju to grilled meats to soups and stews. "Soju can easily be incorporated into a meal because it has a lot of savory characteristics," says Kim. Somaek, a portmanteau of soju and maekju (Korean for beer) that's similar to a boilermaker, is also popular. For higher proof artisanal soju, Kim recommends sipping and savoring it, either neat (with a splash of water if you like), or on the rocks. "A highball is also a great way to enjoy it," continues Kim. "The soda water brings out the aromatics and makes the soju more refreshing."
If you're interested in exploring soju but would rather not buy your own bottles, Rue advises trying it at a bar, ideally on a quiet night when the staff can take the time to talk about what they're serving you. As you embark on your soju journey, remember these words of wisdom from Rue: "You don't have to learn about a drink to enjoy it, but it can be a way of experiencing another culture, so try not to generalize or be reductive. Soju is not a fad."