Did you know that Soju is often seen in green bottles? This clear spirit is a staple in the Korean drinking scene. And for many good reasons!

Are you asking yourself the question, "What is Soju?" Ask no more! 

In this guide, we will explore everything there is to know about this iconic drink! Keep reading for more!

What Is Soju?

Soju is a clear, distilled spirit that's often called the national drink of South Korea. It's typically made from rice, wheat, or barley, but modern versions might use other starches like potatoes or tapioca.

Traditionally, Soju has an alcohol content of about 20-25%, but it can vary from as low as 16.8% to as high as 53%, depending on the brand and variety. Its taste is usually neutral and clean. But recently, distilleries offer a range of flavored Sojus, with fruity flavors being the most popular.

The history of Soju dates back to the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). It was first introduced through the Mongol invasions from the Yuan dynasty's Arak method.

Distilling techniques were refined in the subsequent Joseon era, and Soju became a fixture in Korean culture. However, during the Korean War in the 1950s, a rice shortage led the Korean government to ban traditional distillation methods.

Soju plays a crucial role in South Korean culture. It's present at almost every social gathering, from casual dinners to important business meetings, and it's the centerpiece of many celebrations.

Korea's National Drink: How It's Made

Soju is primarily made from grains, with rice being the most traditional choice. However, in modern times, ingredients such as:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Potatoes
  • Tapioca

The grain is fermented with a traditional Korean fermentation starter called nuruk, which converts the starches into sugars.

Production Process

Soju is traditionally made through a distillation process similar to that used for vodka or whiskey. The grain mash is fermented, then heated in a still. The vapors are collected and condensed to form Soju.

However, this traditional method, which produces a full-flavored and often stronger Soju, isn't as widespread nowadays. After a government ban on distillation during the Korean War due to rice shortages, most Soju started to be made by diluting neutral spirits like ethanol with water and additives.

Different Brands and Their Production Methods

Jinro and Chamisul are some of the most popular brands. Jinro Soju, in particular, has been the world's best-selling spirit for many years. They typically produce the lighter, modern style of Soju.

However, there are also smaller producers reviving the traditional distillation methods, like Andong Soju, which makes a higher-proof, more flavorful spirit.

Regulations for Producing Soju

It's worth noting that Soju production is regulated by Korean law, especially when it comes to labeling.

The labels need to state:

  • The type of grain used
  • Alcohol content
  • Whether it's made by dilution or distillation 

There are certain restrictions on additives. The traditional and modern methods of production, as well as the wide variety of brands, make Soju a diverse and fascinating category of spirit.

Different Types of Korean Soju

There's a Soju for every occasion and taste. Whether you're into the smooth, easy-drinking Green Bottle Soju, or you're on the hunt for a complex, traditional spirit, or you're excited by the idea of a sweet, fruity drink, the world of Soju has you covered. Just remember to pour with two hands and enjoy responsibly!

Let's take a look!

Green Bottle Soju

First up, we have the iconic Green Bottle Soju. These are the ubiquitous bottles you'll see on every table in a Korean BBQ restaurant.

Green Bottle Soju typically contains around 20% alcohol and has a clean, slightly sweet taste that's designed to be super easy to drink.

Soonhari is among the most famous brands producing this type of Soju. These bottles are usually pretty affordable and are great for mixing into cocktails.

Premium Soju

These are typically higher in alcohol content and made through the traditional distillation process. They offer a more complex flavor profile compared to the regular green bottle ones.

Honkaku is a well-known brand in this category, often enjoyed neat or on the rocks to savor its full flavor. While they come with a higher price tag, they're perfect for those looking to explore a deeper taste of Soju.

Flavored Soju

Flavored Soju has exploded in popularity over the past decade. These versions are a bit sweeter and have a lower alcohol content, making them a hit among younger drinkers.

They come in a rainbow of flavors, from:

  • Peach
  • Apple
  • Grapefruit
  • Yogurt
  • Cola

Soonhari's fruit series is a standout, with their apple mango and peach flavors being crowd favorites.

Regional Soju

Beyond the general categories, there's also a significant amount of regional variation in Soju. Each region in South Korea has its unique style of Soju.

For instance, Andong in Gyeongsangbuk-do province is famous for its traditionally distilled, higher-strength Soju.

In contrast, the island of Jeju is known for its Soju made from clean, mineral-rich waters and locally grown barley. Exploring regional Sojus can be a fun way to discover the diversity of Korean spirits.

How to Drink Soju

When it comes to the flavor profile of Soju, you can expect it to be generally smooth, clean, and neutral, a bit like vodka but with its own subtle characteristics. It's slightly sweet, sometimes with hints of fruitiness, and a mild burn on the finish. That's for the common green bottle type.

If you're sipping on a traditional, premium Soju, expect more complex flavors. These can have notes of grains, nuts, and even a touch of smokiness.

Flavored Sojus, on the other hand, will be sweeter and carry the taste of whatever flavor they're infused with, like peach or grapefruit.

The ABV, or alcohol by volume, of Soju is a crucial aspect to consider when tasting. The standard Soju usually hovers around 20% ABV, making it less potent than spirits like vodka or whiskey. This is part of what makes Soju such a social drink, as it's mild enough to enjoy throughout the evening.

However, ABV can vary, especially with premium and traditional Sojus, which can climb up to 45%. Always check the ABV before starting to ensure you know what you're getting into.

Now, for the tasting itself. Similar to other spirits, you'll want to take a moment to savor the Soju before you gulp it down.

Start by examining its clarity and viscosity. Take a small sip and let it roll around your tongue, trying to identify the flavors. Swallow and notice the lingering taste, or finish.

Remember, traditional Korean drinking etiquette suggests that you should never drink alone, and it's customary to receive and give drinks with two hands.

So raise a glass, give a cheerful "Geonbae!" (that's "Cheers!" in Korean), and enjoy the unique experience of tasting Soju.

Korean Soju: Culture and Etiquette

Soju is much more than just a beverage in South Korea; it's a cultural icon. The etiquette, games, and traditions surrounding it provide a unique drinking experience. But they also reflect the values of:

  • Respect
  • Community
  • Celebration intrinsic to Korean culture

Drinking Etiquette 101

Drinking Soju is not just about the drink itself, but also about the shared experience and respect for others. This is evident in traditional Korean drinking etiquette.

For example, when someone older or of higher status offers you a drink, it's polite to receive the glass with both hands. When you pour Soju for others, also use both hands.

And it's customary to turn your head away and cover your mouth with your hand when drinking in the presence of your elders. These small actions contribute to a sense of community and respect that is deeply ingrained in Korean drinking culture.

Drinking Games with Soju

Soju is also a star player in a variety of popular drinking games. One well-known game is "Titanic", where a small glass of Soju is floated in a larger glass of beer.

Players take turns pouring Soju into the smaller glass without sinking it - whoever sinks the "Titanic" has to drink the whole glass!

Another game is "Baskin Robbins 31", where players take turns counting up to 31, with the loser having to drink. These games add a fun and social element to drinking Soju.

Celebrating with Soju

Soju also holds a significant place in celebrations and events. Whether it's a birthday party, a wedding, a business deal, or just a weekend get-together, it's common to see Soju being passed around.

In fact, a typical toast in Korean, "wonshot", involves everyone in the room downing a shot of Soju together, symbolizing unity and celebration.

Soju and K-Pop

Beyond the real world, Soju has also made its mark in Korean media, particularly in movies, dramas, and K-pop.

Characters are often seen sharing a bottle of Soju during pivotal scenes, using it as a way to:

  • Bond
  • Celebrate
  • Commiserate

Some K-pop stars have even become brand ambassadors for Soju, promoting it in their music videos and ads.

How to Pair Food with Soju

Starting with traditional food pairings, Soju is the perfect companion to a range of Korean dishes. The clean, smooth taste of Soju balances out the rich, spicy, and often fermented flavors of Korean cuisine.

Samgyeopsal, or grilled pork belly, is a classic pairing. The sizzling, fatty pork with a touch of salty-sweet ssamjang sauce, wrapped in crisp lettuce, complements Soju beautifully.

Other traditional pairings include spicy stews like:

  • Kimchi jjigae or budae jjigae
  • Crispy pajeon (green onion pancakes)
  • Even a simple plate of kimchi

The rule of thumb is that Soju goes well with robust, savory flavors.

Soju's neutral flavor profile makes it versatile enough to go beyond Korean cuisine. You can experiment with pairing Soju with a range of international foods.

For instance, try it with:

  • Sushi or sashimi from Japanese cuisine
  • Spicy dishes from Thai cuisine
  • Even a cheesy pizza from American Italian cuisine

Also, flavored Soju opens up even more possibilities. A peach-flavored Soju might pair well with a light dessert, while a yogurt Soju could be an interesting match for a plate of fresh fruit.

If you're thinking of hosting a Soju and food pairing event, that sounds like a fantastic idea!

Start by selecting a variety of Soju types:

  • Classic
  • Premium
  • A couple of flavored options

Then, plan out a menu that includes both Korean and non-Korean dishes with a range of flavors:

  • Spicy
  • Salty
  • Sweet
  • Savory

Make sure to serve Soju chilled, and don't forget the shot glasses!

You can introduce each Soju and explain the food pairing. Or even better, encourage your guests to try different combinations and discover their own favorite pairings.

Remember, the most important part of any Soju event is the shared experience, so keep the atmosphere light and convivial. 

Mixing Soju Cocktails

The most iconic is probably the "Soju Bomb," also known as "Poktanju". It involves dropping a shot of Soju into a glass of beer and downing it quickly. Not so much a cocktail as a high-energy party drink!

Another classic is the "So-Maek," a smoother mix of Soju and beer, usually in a ratio of 1:2. It lightens the beer and makes the Soju even smoother, a perfect combo for a long night of socializing.

With its smooth and neutral taste, Soju makes a great base for a range of cocktails.

Try the "Soju Mojito," where you swap out rum for Soju in the traditional Mojito recipe, mixing it with:

  • Lime
  • Mint
  • Sugar
  • Soda water

Or how about a "Soju Sunrise," combining Soju with orange juice and a splash of grenadine for a Korean twist on the Tequila Sunrise?

Flavored Sojus also open up lots of possibilities for cocktail experimenting!

Are You Ready to Try Korea's National Drink?

So, "What is Soju?" As we've seen, this humble Korean spirit is not just a beverage, but a cultural phenomenon, a testament to the Korean ethos of community, respect, and, of course, celebration. 

Now that you're armed with all this Soju knowledge, why not host a Soju tasting, pairing, or cocktail party? Remember, Soju is best enjoyed in good company. 

Head to our store and choose from our selection of Soju!