Writer Phoebe Taylor / Photograph Hyung-In Park, Tom Studio
Once barely-known outside its region of production, soju – a clear, strong spirit hailing from the Korean peninsula – has become a global phenomenon. Hite Jinro became the best-selling spirit brand in the world in 2016 and remained so throughout 2017 when it sold 683 million liters of soju. With a market share so vast, there’s plenty of diversity within soju production. The drink is also poised to shift dramatically in the next few years – mostly consumed as an inexpensive express ticket towards inebriation, soju is on the verge of becoming the next big thing in the premium drinks industry. Increasingly discerning consumers are seeking out higher-quality versions and many premium manufacturers have gone back to traditional ingredients (as opposed to the artificial sweeteners and additives found in cheaper sojus) whilst bartenders all over the world are becoming aware of soju’s many charms. With the hugely popular hallyu (‘Korean Wave’) driving interest in Korean culture worldwide, the drink’s meteoric rise shows no sign of abating.
The History Of Soju
Soju has been produced in Korea since the 13th century when invading Mongols introduced their distillation techniques to the country. Although modern commercial soju may contain various ingredients such as chemical preservatives, sweet potatoes, tapioca, and artificial flavorings, soju was traditionally made from just three ingredients: rice (occasionally substituted with barley or wheat), water, and nuruk, a fermenting agent comprised of bacteria, wild yeasts, and enzyme-rich mold pressed together into a dry cake. Today, there are two types of soju; those made using traditional distillation methods and those made through a process of dilution, where strong ethanol is diluted to acceptable drinking strength. Most mass-produced sojus fall into the latter category.
Today, many commercial soju brands use ethanol derived from sweet potatoes rather than rice. This is a hangover from harsher times – 1965, to be precise when the Korean government banned the use of rice in soju production as a response to food shortages across the country. It’s strong, but not too strong; usually sojus come out at around 17 to 20 percent ABV, though some sojus can be found with percentages as high as 53. Although its flavors can sometimes come across as coarse when imbibed on its own, soju’s harsh taste is a good counterpart to anju (food to eat while drinking, such as hot, crispy fritters, pajeon seafood pancakes, Korean-style fried chicken, or sizzling samgyeopsal – grilled pork belly) and Korea’s spicy, flavourful cuisine.
How Has Soju Become So Popular Internationally?
Soju, like many other Korean products, is riding the Korean wave, Korean culture having gained huge popularity overseas in the last few years. Korean boyband BTS made history in 2018 with a ground-breaking win at the American Music Awards, followed up by a slew of wins from awards ceremonies all over the world (including the US, UK, Germany, Brazil, Canada, and Japan), record-breaking numbers of video views, and even a speech at the United Nations. Rapper Psy has been making waves since 2012 when he released megahit Gangnam Style (the video for which currently sits at over 3.2 billion views on YouTube). He’s also been a brand ambassador for Chamisul soju (owned by Hite Jinro) for a number of years and swigs gallons of the stuff in Hangover, a 2014 music video which shows Psy drinking his way around town with iconic US rapper Snoop Dogg.
But it’s Korean TV dramas which have really driven soju sales, as consumers seek to replicate the scenes they see on their TV screens. K-dramas are exported all over the world, and are wildly popular, especially in South-East Asia. In the Philippines, K-drama is so popular that a number of TV series have been redubbed in Tagalog – and this popularity has directly led to increased soju sales. In 2015, Hite Jinro’s profits in South East Asia were $4.9 million, increasing yearly to $8.8 million in 2017. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, an industry official credited the “continuing popularity from K-dramas and K-pop” as a significant factor in the increased profit in the region.
A Shift in Soju Production
All this focus on soju has resulted in a shift in its production. Most commercial sojus are made using the ‘dilution’ method, rather than traditional distillation. However, recent years have seen increasing interest in more ‘premium’ sojus, spearheaded by drinks such as Jinro’s Ilpoom 1924, first released in 1924, to mark the company’s 90th anniversary, and Hwayo, a soju which attributes its invigorating taste to the fresh spring water used to make it, drawn 150 metres from below ground. Hwayo is distributed in foreign markets and even appears in the iconic London department store Fortnum & Masons.
Big brands are now jumping on the bandwagon with premium sojus, including Lotte Liquor, whose Daejangbu (meaning ‘a great man’) is an excellent introduction to the world of more upmarket sojus. There’s even a handful of foreign-based soju brands cropping up, such as Brooklyn-based Tokki Soju, whose marketing focuses on its simple ingredients and handcrafted style. Both traditionally-distilled and diluted styles of soju are seeing significant increases in sales, and premium sojus, in particular, are poised to become highly sought-after (and profitable) worldwide.
Many of these sojus are set to come into their own globally after a long legacy of craftsmanship in Korea. Moonbaesool (‘Moonbae’ is a Korean pear found in the wild) has a history dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula until the late 1300s, and the secrets of its production have been passed down from generation to generation. It has released 23 and 25 percent alcohol versions in the last few years (milder than its original 40 percent) with an eye to younger markets and exports.
At Samhaeju (‘Samhae’ translates as ‘three pig days’. A day of the pig is believed to bring a fortune to people in Korea), a master distiller, Kim Taek Sang, seeks to educate young Koreans and visitors about traditional soju production at his brewing studio in Jongro-gu, Seoul, teaching distillation techniques and brewing secrets passed down through his family and decades of training.
Some commercial sojus are produced exclusively for foreign markets, including fruity sojus and flavored versions. Lotte’s Soonhari range includes a yogurt-flavored variant – a twist on the wildly popular soju cocktail – which was exclusively launched in Australia in December 2018.
Looking to the future, it’s clear that soju’s star is in a staggering ascendancy. Cocktail bartenders across Asia and beyond are experimenting with its flavors, and consumers both abroad and at home are exploring traditionally-distilled, premium versions of Korea’s most popular drink.
[Side bar:] How Is Soju Made?
Soju is traditionally made from just three things: cooked rice, water, and nuruk, a traditional Korean fermentation starter.
- Nuruk is made by mixing grains with water, and waiting for the resultant batter to naturally produce lactic acid bacteria, enzyme-rich mould, yeast and other microbes.
- It can also be produced artificially, in which case lactic acid bacteria and yeast need to be added in a separate step.
- Nuruk is added to a mix of cooked rice and water, and left for approximately a week.
- Fermentation agents in the nuruk work to break down starch in the mixture into sugar, then to alcohol.
- The resultant liquid (known as wonju) is left to settle.
- The sediment layer on the bottom is separated, and used to make thicker, milky makgeolli.
- The upper layer of clear liquid (cheongju) is distilled, producing soju.