Soju Explained: What Is It and How Do You Drink It?

Accept your glass with both hands as a sign of respect.

Photo: Brent Hofacker / Getty Images

What Is Soju?

"Historically, soju is a rice-based spirit made in Korea, but over time, that has changed a lot," says Jesse Vida, operating partner of Singapore's soon-to-debut craft cocktail bar Cat Bite Club, which will focus on rice- and agave-based spirits. "About 90% of soju on the market is known as 'green-bottle' soju, which you'll most commonly see at Korean barbecue restaurants outside of Korea," he adds.

Crafted from grains and starches like barley, sweet potatoes, and tapioca, green-bottle soju is what you'd typically have alongside beer or makgeolli, Korean rice wine. "In the 1950s, when Korean companies were banned from making soju out of rice because it was needed to feed people [during the Korean War], companies imported tapioca from Southeast Asia and that is how the green bottle started," explains Busan-born Bobby Yoon, owner and founder of NYC Korean barbecue joint Yoon Haeundae Galbi. "In the 1990s, we were able to start using rice again for soju."

Soju crafted purely from rice is still popular, since it is slightly sweeter, adds Phil Abowd, co-owner of Southside Parlor in Seoul. "But I like soju that is mixed with barley or wheat, other grains to balance out the profile," he says. "They showcase the flavor of what soju can be in a better way."

What Does Soju Taste Like?

"In Korea, we have a saying that soju tastes like life — one day it's sweet, one day it's bitter, and sometimes it's just clean and smooth," says Yoon. "Traditionally, soju is fermented white rice with a crisp flavor, a little apple, and sometimes a touch of burnt rice."

Soju is often called the Korean vodka, since it's smooth, mild, and mostly neutral, but it clocks in at about half the alcohol content. "It has more texture and nuance, which makes it great for stirred drinks — but it's so underutilized this way," explains Abowd. "With a subtle spirit like this, you want to keep the flavors simple if you're doing a mixed drink, and not overpower it with anything too strong."

What Is Traditional Soju Etiquette?

"When people dine out in Korea, the hierarchy in age is an important factor," notes Abowd. The youngest person at the table pours and refills everyone's glasses, and you traditionally accept your glass with both hands as a sign of respect. Your glass should always be full — never empty — and if you're done drinking for the moment, leave some soju in the glass to signal you don't want a refill. "You'll never see a Korean pouring soju for themselves — that's a faux pas," he adds. "And when you [say] cheers, avoid eye contact — always look away."

How to Drink Soju

The most common way to drink soju is neat, chilled, and from a shot glass. Somaek, a portmanteau for soju and maekju (Korean for beer), is also a popular way to enjoy the spirit. Somaek is prepared by mixing a few shots of soju into a light beer (Hite and Cass are classic go-to's).

"Lighter soju styles are sometimes used in cocktails, but not prevalent in cocktail bars," says Vida. "I guess it's like any spirit really, you mix, chill, or shoot the lower quality stuff, and drink the good ones neat."

Premium soju, which is generally higher in ABV (around 40%), works well in stirred, stronger drinks or with soda water as a spritz. Abowd likes his simple: soju and soda with a squeeze of lime. You can also mix it with juice from apples, pears, or persimmons, or infuse the spirit with botanicals like juniper or jasmine, but if you start blending it with richer fruits like kiwi or banana, you'll mask the soju.

At Yoon, the team plays around with different flavor profiles and ABVs of soju, using Hwayo 25 (25% ABV) for lighter cocktails, Hwayo 41 (41% ABV) for a stronger build, and the subtle pine notes of Damsoul Pine for a refreshing highball, Yoon says.

How to Pair Soju with Food

Anju, which is Korean for dishes served with alcohol, spans a pretty wide spectrum, from fried vegetables, meat, and other street food hits to classic Korean dinner entrees like galbi and bulgogi, and raw seafood, oysters, crab, and clams — which are popular in coastal regions, explains Katianna Hong, chef and partner behind Korean-American deli and super Yangban Society, in Downtown L.A.. Since soju is light and on the refreshing side, it easily cuts through fried foods and fatty meats, making it a great companion for heavier meals and meat like short ribs, pork belly, dry-aged ribeye, and brisket — which is just one reason why it's a fixture at Korean barbecue joints around the world. "The beauty of soju is that you can drink it with a lot of things: hangover foods, meaty pasta sauce, mussels in white wine broth; we really love it with ramen or stews with deep flavor," says Yoon. "We have another saying in Korea that stew warms up the body, and soju cools it down."

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