What Is Soju?

What's the Difference Between Soju and Sake?

Korean traditional wine followed by glass
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Soju is a distilled spirit from Korea that's traditionally made from rice. It may be made from sweet potato, barley, tapioca, or wheat or any combination of the ingredients. The clear alcoholic beverage is sometimes called Korean vodka because of its neutral flavor. Though it's long been a favorite drink in Korea and is a perfect pairing for Korean cuisine, soju is enjoying increased popularity in the West. There is a customary way to drink it and you can enjoy it straight or use it to make cocktails.

Soju vs. Sake

Traditional Korean soju and Japanese sake are similar in that they are both made from rice. While sake continues to use rice and has more of a neutral flavor, soju may be made from other starches and that affects the taste. Soju is often sweeter while sake is dry in comparison. The biggest difference is how the two are made: Sake is fermented and brewed like beer and soju is distilled like vodka. Sake typically has a lower alcohol content than soju.

Korea and Japan produce two other alcoholic beverages that are similar as well. Shochu is a low alcohol Japanese distilled spirit made from barley, rice, or sweet potato, so it is similar to soju. Makkoli is the Korean equivalent to sake and is essentially a rice wine that is fermented (not distilled). It's left unfiltered and has a tangy flavor because it naturally contains a lactic acid similar to that found in yogurt.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Rice, sweet potato, barley, tapioca, wheat
  • Proof: 32–90
  • ABV: 16–45%
  • Calories in a shot: 43
  • Origin: Korea
  • Taste: Neutral, semi-sweet
  • Serve: Straight, chilled, cocktails

What Is Soju Made From?

Soju was first distilled in Korea during the 1300s. Historians believe that the Mongols brought the Persian technique of distilling arak to Korea. It became one of the most popular spirits in Korea over the centuries until the Japanese occupation in the early 1900s. At that time, soju production was suppressed and sake and beer became more popular.

The word soju means "burned liquor," referring to how the alcohol is distilled at a high temperature. It is a clear distilled liquor made from rice, like many drinks in Korea. Following the liberation of Korea from Japan and the Korean War years in the 1950s, soju production was again put into jeopardy—this time by the rice shortage in the 1960s. The government made it illegal to use rice for soju, so distilleries began to use sweet potatoes, wheat, barley, and tapioca as replacements. The ban was lifted in the 1990s and today some soju is once again distilled from rice. It's not uncommon for soju to be made with a combination of starches.

Most bottles of soju will fall in the range of 16 percent to 45 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 32 to 90 proof). Many members of the older generation prefer the stronger bottles of soju, but younger drinkers like the milder taste of the lower alcohol content varieties.

What Does Soju Taste Like?

Soju has a clean, neutral taste. People often say that the taste reminds them of vodka, but most commercial soju sold today has a sweeter and less aggressive flavor than vodka. There is typically an astringency to the flavor, so you may notice a bitterness underneath the soju's subtle sweetness. Sweet potato soju will be sweeter than soju made from other starches.

Flavors

Much like vodka, soju is made today in a variety of flavors. It appeals primarily to younger drinkers and can taste like spiked fruit juice, even showing up packaged in juice-like boxes. Flavored soju can be found in apple, blueberry, citrus, grape, grapefruit, peach, pineapple, and pomegranate, among other flavors.

Where to Buy Soju

Soju is widely available in Korea and other Asian countries. Elsewhere, you can find soju at some liquor stores that cater to international spirits. Soju can often be found in restaurants and stores—including Asian food markets—that don't have a full liquor license because it's lower proof and often categorized (mistakenly) as a rice wine.

How to Drink Soju

Soju is usually consumed neat, often chilled and sipped straight in small glasses. Traditionally, soju is enjoyed socially along with food and snacks.

Korean culture is instilled with social rules associated with drinking soju. Typically starting with the eldest member of the group, everyone at the table pours someone else a glass (never for oneself). Both the person pouring and the receiver use two hands on the vessels. You're expected to take the straight shot without looking at the person who served you and after the first round, it's acceptable to sip the soju. If you notice someone shaking or swirling the bottle, it's an old custom that dates back to a time when soju would have sediment that needed to be reincorporated. It's rare that any soju is left in the bottle once it's open and it is known for producing some nasty hangovers. Gonbae is Korean for "cheers!" and heard often when enjoying soju.

In addition, soju is used in mixed drinks and alcoholic punches. High-proof soju will stand up better in cocktails as the softer versions can get lost behind a drink's other flavors. Though there are not many well-known soju-specific cocktails outside of Korea, bartenders worldwide are reimagining favorite cocktails with the spirit. Gin and vodka cocktails are natural uses for the neutral flavor of soju, so you will find it in drinks like the Negroni, gimlet, and bloody Mary. Soju is also an easy way to transform favorite drinks into low-proof cocktails.

Cocktail Recipes

Korean bars are filled with imaginative soju cocktails. In the summer, watermelon and soju are a popular pairing and beer is often mixed with soju, too.

  • Korean Yogurt Soju Cocktail
  • Somaek is a drink that combines soju and beer (maekju in Korean). The ratio preferred in Korean bars is three parts soju to seven parts lager (special glasses mark the exact pours). The bottom of the glass is tapped with a spoon to trigger the beer's carbonation, which mixes the drink.
  • Subak soju is a popular drink in Korean bars and it's easy to make. Typically, it is equal parts of fresh watermelon juice and soju. It may be topped with lemon-lime soda and is most often served inside a hollow mini seedless watermelon (the source of the juice).

Popular Brands

There are many brands of soju available; some are exclusive to Korea while others are distributed globally. Jinro is often the top-selling liquor brand in the world. As a whole, the soju outsells all other liquor categories—it's rival is the Chinese spirit, baijiu. and the two rotate for top honors regularly.

Just like with vodka, it is wise to spend a little more money on premium soju. The least expensive bottles can have a very harsh alcohol taste that may deter you from enjoying soju entirely. Premium soju is typically stronger, so look to the label's ABV. Soju produced in the city of Andong is also renowned for being some of the best.

  • Chamisul
  • Cham "Deep Ocean Water" Island Soju
  • Chum-Churum
  • Hwayo
  • Jinro
  • Moonbaesool
  • Tokki
  • Ty Ku