The best-selling spirit in the world isn’t a type of whiskey, vodka or rum—it’s soju, a clear, distilled Korean liquor made from rice. Soju, the national drink of South Korea, is the best-selling liquor in the world by volume and sales and has only been growing in recent years. Despite the worldwide sales numbers of soju, the spirit isn’t well known in the United States. However, what was once an underrated beverage in the West, enjoying soju only continues to increase in popularity due to the rise of Korean food.
Soju was first distilled in Korea during the 1300s. Historians believe that the Mongols brought the Persian technique of distilling arak to Korea. Soju is traditionally made from rice, but that changed during the Korean War amid shortages. Distilling rice was banned, so Koreans started making soju with alternative starches like wheat, sweet potatoes and tapioca. The ban was lifted in the late 1990s, but many of the best-selling brands in Korea still use alternative starches. Soju is distilled like vodka and means “burned liquor,” referring to how the alcohol is distilled at a high temperature.
Soju has a clean taste and is a slightly sweet neutral spirit. It is often called Korean vodka because of its neutral flavor, though most commercial soju sold today has a sweeter and less aggressive flavor than vodka. Soju also doesn’t have the harsh alcohol burn, thanks to having around half the percentage of alcohol. At its most basic, soju has a 20-24% ABV, but the alcohol content can range anywhere from 15% to over 50%. Thanks to lax laws regarding the ingredients used to make soju, the taste and quality can also vary considerably.
Soju is usually consumed neat, often chilled and sipped straight in small glasses, but it’s also mixed into cocktails and even beer. High-proof soju will stand up better in cocktails, as the softer versions can get lost behind a drink’s other flavors. Although there are not many well-known soju-specific cocktails outside of Korea, soju is an easy substitute for vodka in most recipes, and bartenders worldwide are reimagining favorite cocktails with the spirit. 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.
There is a customary way to drink soju. Traditionally, soju is enjoyed as a communal drink along with food and snacks, and one never pours their own soju. A typical meal with soju doesn’t involve courses; instead, everything is on the table at once in a communal setting. Soju can give a supporting complement to the food, rather than, like wine, making the food more complex.