A guide to Soju, the must-try Korean vodka
Shoot, sip or mix your new favorite liquor: soju. A vodka-like Korean spirit, drinking soju is steeped in tradition and can easily substitute in your favorite cocktails.
February 23, 2022
Soju — often called “Korean vodka” — is as smooth and catchy as a BTS dance hit. Around 20-25% ABV (40-50 proof, or about half the alcohol of standard vodkas), this traditionally rice-based liquor is easy to drink and mildly sweet, pairing effortlessly with salty ramen, savory pork and spicy seafood stews. It’s a beverage best served cold with a heaping side of tradition.
How to serve soju
When first opening your bottle, give it a proper shake. While modern distillers filter their product to remove lingering sediments, tradition dictates one should still agitate the bottle. Social ranking and age play important roles in serving soju. The oldest member of your group should pour first and no one should start drinking until everyone’s glass is filled.
When your drink is being poured, lift the glass to the bottle’s mouth using both hands. Koreans tend to shoot the first glass and sip thereafter. “Geonbae” (pronounced “gun bae”) is spoken by all; it’s a rough translation of “bottoms up.”
The soju will continue to flow until the bottle’s gone, as a glass left empty is considered a faux pas. If you’re trying to avoid getting too soju-ed (is that a verb?), just leave a little in the bottom of your glass to signal you’re not ready for the next round.
How to mix soju
Drinking soju is a social dance of gestures and rules and ceremonies. Don’t let that intimidate you from experimenting with this unique spirit. Soju’s neutral profile makes it a great substitute for cocktails traditionally made with vodka and gin. Because of its low alcohol content compared to other similar liquors, soju is easier to drink as well.
Swap in soju for vodka and soy sauce for Worcestershire for a lighter, tangier version of the traditional Bloody Mary. Mix soju, lemon juice, sugar and seltzer for an Asian twist on a Tom Collins. Soju can even replace the clear rum in your classic mojito. Because of its sweeter profile, Korean soju cocktails often employ yogurt, juices and even chocolate milk!
One of the most popular soju cocktails in Korea is an iced blend of soju, Korean yogurt (Yakult) and Sprite (or Korea’s version, Chilsung Cider).
What makes soju different?
Soju is the top-selling liquor by volume in the world. In the 20th century, the Korean government banned the rice distillation process due to nationwide rice shortages caused by war. Brewers and distillers are ever-adaptable and the Korean market was quickly flooded with soju varieties made from sweet potatoes, tapioca and other grains. This beverage is customarily imbibed neat and served alongside the main course like a glass of wine.
You may be more familiar with other related products from Japan like shochu (with an average ABV of 30%) and sake (about 15%), but there are notable differences. For one, shochu is often served on the rocks and mixed with other ingredients. Shochu, like soju, is a distilled spirit at least, whereas sake is brewed like beer. While you might affiliate sake bombs with your less-than-inspired youthful choices, sake sommeliers will attest to its multidimensional flavors.
Soju has a similar tendency to disappear at parties quickly, but it’s best enjoyed throughout a meal.
Soju brands to try
Now that you know how to serve, sip and mix soju, you’ll want to consider which one to buy. While this Korean booze is incredibly popular globally, it has only recently made its rise in the U.S. market, so you’ll want to investigate what options are available at your local liquor stores. You’ll likely discover several products from HiteJinro Co., South Korea’s best-known distilling company. Jinro makes Chamisul, a classic soju made from a blend of grains and served in a green bottle with a twist-off top. Their signature green bottle pervades the market and is what most people associate with this beverage. Their other related products include lighter sojus with a lower ABV and plenty of fruity-flavored options featuring grapefruit, grape and plum.
Good Day is another Korean brand favored for its rainbow of tropical tastes: pomegranate, blueberry, pineapple, peach, apple, green grape, strawberry, grapefruit, lychee, melon and more. A sophisticated palette may opt for Hwayo, a rice-based soju distiller serving high-quality spirits. Hwayo X.Premium is aged in American oak casks for several years to create a caramel-hued rice whiskey.
Soju is more than a curious drink on the menu at your local Korean restaurant; it’s a cultural experience with the versatility to substitute in your favorite cocktails. Share it with your friends the next time you host a party; just remember to keep the soju flowing. Geonbae!