A Beginner’s Guide to Soju
For centuries, the forces of globalization have brought what were once regional or nation-specific tipples to other shores. English Regency gentlemen developed a ferocious thirst for Port wine, becoming “two bottle men”; the court of the Romanovs hoovered up Champagne; and pre-Prohibition America was awash in Irish whiskey.
And so, soju, the national spirit of Korea—and by some measures, the most-consumed spirit on earth—has become widely available beyond its native peninsula. However, many Western drinkers—a category that includes this writer—aren’t quite sure what to make of it. If we’ve had it, chances are that it was experienced in a Korean restaurant (perhaps one of the many excellent barbecue spots that make up New York City’s tiny Koreatown, situated in the shadow of the Empire State Building), where its true character was disguised in a sweet, fruity cocktail.
Unlike another Eastern export, sake—which may be crudely understood as being analogous to wine—there seems to be no easy equivalent for this clear, distilled beverage whose alcohol-by-volume punches well above the strength of wine but not to the level of a typical whiskey or gin. But as we’ll learn, that’s not entirely true.
Soju might be best compared to vodka. Like that broad category, it’s distilled from whatever starches are at hand. Where that meant rye, wheat or potatoes in the Eastern European context, it translates to rice, sweet potatoes or tapioca for soju. And like vodka, there are no rules against adding sugar, citric acid and other flavourings, resulting in entire soju aisles of watermelon, peach or apple iterations.
But where it differs from that category is its ABV, which varies greatly from just below 13% to a hair over 50. This means that it may have the potency of a Chianti, or that of a diluted vodka shot—something worth looking into before you decide to throw a few glasses back during your lunch break.
While it would be a fool’s errand to pigeonhole an entire category with a few tasting notes, soju tends to be crisp and clean with a touch of sweetness. If there’s a representative starting point, it’s hard to do worse than Jinro, which was established in 1924 and today dominates the South Korean market.
Soju is indeed used in cocktails in South Korea, where its ubiquity, inexpensive price and relatively moderate strength see it deployed in some decidedly un-fussy ways. One simple preparation—more of a mixer-situation than a capital-C cocktail—is what’s commonly called a Yogurt Soju. It’s made by mixing equal parts soju, lemon-lime soda and a sweetened yogurt drink such as Yakult, a Japanese brand that’s available in many Asian food markets.
This simple, shaken drink is bright, tangy, citrusy and refreshing: characteristics that make it the ideal counterweight to the heat of gochujang paste or the red-hot crackle of spicy fried chicken skin. And while those Korean delicacies are its ideal companions, you may enjoy similar results with a vindaloo curry or a plate of extra-spicy halal chicken and rice.
90ml lemon-lime soda
90ml yogurt drink
Add all ingredients to a shaker filled with ice and shake until chilled, about 10 seconds. Strain into a glass and serve.