What Is Soju? Korea’s Most Celebrated Spirit

What Is Soju? Korea’s Most Celebrated Spirit

I’ve been drinking Korean-style since my soju-loving uncle slid that first glass across the table. We were elbow-deep in platters of hwe, iridescent slivers of raw fish shingled atop mounds of shaved radish, and countless tiny plates of banchan. I was 17, just shy of the country’s legal drinking age of 19, so I accepted the small shot glass with both hands, as I had seen my older cousins do, and turned my head to drink the clear liquid. The alcohol hit me with a wallop, making my nose burn and my eyes well, but the feeling dissipated as quickly as it had arrived. It left me wanting another.

Soju is Korea’s most iconic and consumed alcohol—apparently the average Korean downs 53 bottles of soju a year. Soju was traditionally a distilled liquor made with rice, water, and nuruk (a Korean fermentation starter). Nowadays, most commercial soju tends to be a neutral spirit mixed with sweeteners, usually clocking in between 12 to 20% ABV.

It has a crisp but neutral flavor, like an easier-to-sip vodka—perhaps that’s one reason why it’s a constant presence in every popular K-drama. Soju is often described by Koreans as tasting clean, sweet, or smooth. For me, it’s all of those flavors and the complete opposite at the same time. Usually, the first shot tastes intense and bracing, like harsh rubbing alcohol, but finishes without any aftertaste. Rather, each consecutive shot tastes milder and easier than the last. And therein lies soju’s inherent danger!

Soju dos and don’ts

There are some rules and a little social math when it comes to pouring and consuming soju with friends. Korean drinking is all about showing respect and taking care of each other, even when you’re just hanging out. So before you pick up that green bottle, do a little prep.

Keep it cold. Soju tastes best when it’s been refrigerated which mellows out that alcohol burn. I refrigerate it for at least an hour before consuming.

Use the right glassware. Soju is always poured into glasses, usually 2-oz. soju shot glasses. In a pinch, though, any small vessel will do in my book.

Know when to pour. If I’m drinking with friends or peers, I might directly ask for someone’s age if I’m unsure—it’s not impolite to ask in Korean culture, where age is a prominent factor in the social hierarchy.

Don’t serve yourself. I never pour my own glass. Instead I set the bottle down or hand it to another person to do it for me.

Ways to drink soju

Soju is mostly drunk neat, by the full or half shot. Cheers on the first pour (we like to say “First shot, one shot”), then down the first glass before immediately refilling. The following shots can be consumed at a more leisurely pace—you can chase bites of food with half shots or sip as you go. But the clinking continues; Koreans cheers throughout the night to encourage each other to drink.

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