The bright green bottles of the traditional soju drink are appearing more and more often in popular South Korean TV series and movies. Lately, soju has been actively penetrating the Russian market as well: cocktails are mixed with it and it is sold in large stores. We found out from Made in China's head bartender, Vasya Markov, what soju is made from, what flavors it comes in, and where to buy it.
Vodka or not? Soju is a traditional Korean drink with an alcoholic strength of 13% to 45%, obtained by distillation. In Russia, it is often referred to as Korean vodka, but as with sake, such a characterization is erroneous. It is a separate category of alcoholic beverages with its own history. For example, we do not say that gin is juniper vodka, so we should not call soju either. Perhaps the misconception is due to the fact that it is easier to explain the nature of the drink, and the organoleptic properties of soju and vodka are similar in many ways.
Soju is as popular in Korea as vodka is in Russia. It is as important to Korean culture as any traditional drink in their country: whiskey for the Scots and the Irish, tequila and mescal for the Mexicans, and baijiu for the Chinese. Rarely does a dinner party in Korea happen without traditional alcohol. Soju is also one of the most popular drinks in the world. It is produced more than the entire category of Scotch and Irish whiskey together.
What is soju made from? What varieties are there? There are two kinds of soju: the traditional kind made from rice, barley, or sweet potatoes, and the modern kind made from sugar cane. In 1965 Korea outlawed the distillation from rice because there wasn't enough of it even for food. Then they started making the drink from rectified sugar cane. Soju can be flavored, such as strawberry and grape, or unflavored. They also contain added sweeteners: before 1980, saccharin was used; nowadays, stevioside, an extract from a plant of the genus stevia, is used. Soju's strength also varies. The traditional beverage is stronger, varying from 35 to 45 degrees; the modern one, from 13 to 24 degrees.
What does soju taste like? Unflavored soju tastes similar to our vodka, only slightly sweeter and much less alcoholic. A product with additives has a milder taste, the strength usually does not exceed 13% - it is easy to drink on its own or by diluting with soda. In Russia, the most common flavors are strawberry, plum, grapefruit and grape. How to choose the right one? At the moment there is only one company on the Russian market that offers soju. The green bottles familiar from Korean films and doramas are its handiwork. It is a Korean giant that produces 90% of all soju, so there is not much choice of brands even in Korea.
How and with what to drink? There aren't a lot of drinking rules like wine or sake, for example. And the ones that do exist are more about the environment in which you drink, not the right glassware or the temperature of the drink. In Korea, it is customary to drink in company: the younger generation fills the glasses of their elders, but they don't forget about themselves as it is considered impolite to refuse. They drink soju in small sips, constantly refilling the glasses when they're empty.
The best way to drink soju is with Asian food. Spicy soups, spicy noodles, steamed rice and fried meat. The main thing is to do it with pleasure and in moderation.
Are there soju cocktails? Yes, and not only do they exist, but they are becoming increasingly popular. Not much is known about the drink yet, but it is rapidly gaining recognition among bartenders, restaurateurs, and, of course, guests. For the last year you can come across more and more different soju mixes, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Personally I often use flavored version as a modifier for cocktails and unflavored - as a non-strength base for a gimlet if the guest wants a cocktail which is not very strong. In Korea, soju is drunk pure or diluted with various sodas. It is better to take unsweetened ones so as not to interfere with the main taste.