Although you may not have heard of soju, you might recognize its iconic green bottle from Korean dramas and restaurants. Soju, a colorless and slightly sweet spirit from Korea, has been the staple of Korean food and culture for hundreds of years. Typically, Korean people consume this popular liquor as a shot. After all, soju’s neutral flavor often works as a palate cleanser when eating spicy, salty and savory foods. But, taking shots is not for everyone–myself included. So, if you want to try soju with Korean food, but do not want to take shots, why not try making a soju cocktail instead?
Although soju is traditionally consumed neat, Korean people are experimenting more and more with different styles of cocktails. Today, I will introduce one of my favorite soju cocktail recipes: soju and tonic! I love this recipe because soju and tonic is extremely easy to make. Also, it is delicious by itself or paired with Korean soup or grilled pork!
What Is Soju?
Before we dive into the recipe, let me talk a bit about soju. For those not familiar with this alcoholic drink, soju is a clear, colorless, and very neutral-flavored alcoholic spirit from Korea. As Korea’s “national drink,” soju is absolutely THE most popular spirit in Korea.
For those interested in Korean culture, you might recognize its iconic green glass bottle from popular culture (especially in K-Dramas), or your local Korean bars and restaurants.
Coming in at around $1.50 per 12-oz bottle in Korea, people embrace this affordable drink at every possible occasion. For Korean people, soju is so much more than just a drink–it is an inseparable aspect of Korean social culture.
It is not an understatement to say that Koreans LOVE soju. According to Chosun Business News, South Koreans consumed more than 3.6 billion bottles in 2020. They drink so much soju, that this relatively regional drink is literally one of the most sold spirits in the world. No, seriously–Jinro, the most popular soju maker in Korea, sold more than 86 million cases worldwide in 2019. According to The Spirits Business, the massive amount of soju sales made Jinro into the number one best-selling spirit brand in the world.
So, why is soju so insanely popular in South Korea. In other words, how did soju come about?
History of Soju
Soju (1200-1960 AD)
Korean people started making soju back in the 13th century, during Goryeo dynasty. At the time, the reigning Kingdom in the Korean peninsula was at war against the Yuan empire. While at war, the Yuan Mongolians introduced the Levantine distilling techniques to Korean people. These techniques used fermented grains to distill alcohol.
Using this method, Korean people quickly started to distill alcohol using various grains. Popular versions used rice, wheat, and barley. The distilling process was where soju got its name: So (burnt) Ju (liquor).
Among different types of starters, Koreans preferred rice grain for soju. As different traditions and recipes developed, the most popular to emerge came from the Andong region of Korea. They used a traditional porcelain distiller called “sojut gori.” At the time, this traditional soju had about 40% alcohol content per volume (80 proof). People considered Andong soju to be very high-end because of its flavor that developed during fermentation and distilling process.
Beginning in the 1960s, the identity of soju quickly changed. After the Japanese occupation and the Korean war, South Korea became one of the poorest countries in the world. As a result, rice became extremely scarce. Culturally, rice was, and still is, the staple food of the Korean people. Facing a national food crisis, the Korean government passed Food Grains Management Act in 1965. The act banned the production and consumption of all rice-based alcoholic beverages.
So, did Korean people stop drinking soju? Not at all.
As a result, Korean spirit companies changed their traditional soju recipes. They developed a version called “diluted soju.” Diluted soju used cheaper and more abundant grains, like tapioca or sweet potato, instead of rice. For maximum profitability, companies started distilling the fermented grains multiple times to reach about 95% alcohol by volume (180 proof). Then, they “diluted” the alcohol base with water to reach the desired alcohol content around 25% (50 proof); hence the name “diluted soju.”
Unfortunately, because diluted soju used the cheapest grains available in the market, there was no consistency in flavor. Moreover, the extreme and expedited distillation process eliminated almost any of the original flavor profile of the drink. So, soju companies added artificial sweeteners such as sugar, saccharin, or xylitol to make soju more drinkable.
Soju (1995-Present Day)
So this is the bittersweet history of soju. Soju lost its place as a traditional, high-end Korean drink full of flavor.
On one hand, soju is a very affordable and popular drink that many Korean people enjoy. On the other hand, many people criticize soju as a hyper-commercialized spirit that lacks any artisanship or flavor. Often, people describe soju to be “drunk” rather than “enjoyed.”
Thankfully, Korean people are now becoming more and more conscious about preserving the traditional soju making. The Korean government repealed Food Grains Management Act in 1995. Now, the government is putting a lot of effort in promoting traditional soju and sponsoring the next generation of traditional soju makers.
Soju Alcohol Content
Soju’s alcohol content has a deep connection with its history. As previously mentioned, soju initially started off as a rice-based spirit. At the time, it had a 40% alcohol content by volume (80 proof). During the 1960s, soju companies introduced their diluted soju products to the market. These diluted sojus almost always had 25% alcohol content (50 proof).
Then in 1998, Jinro, a Korean soju company, revolutionized the market by introducing their new product, “Chamisul.” This version had a 23% alcohol content (46 proof). Jinro marketed Chamisul, which means “true dew,” as a cleaner, softer alternative to other diluted soju products. Chamisul became extremely popular with the younger crowd, and the competitors like Chumchurum followed suit. Now, most soju products have 17% alcohol content (34 proof).
And this trend is not stopping! In 2015, Chumchurum started making “fruit soju” named Sunhari (meaning “soft”) that had citrus flavorings. These days, these flavored soju products can have the alcohol content as low as 12% (24 proof).
Why Drink Soju Cocktail?
I have a confession to make: soju, by itself, is not my favorite drink.
Although soju is very popular in Korea, many Korean people, including my husband, think that it is an acquired cultural taste. Soju’s refreshing flavor definitely has its appeal when paired with Korean food. After all, there is a reason why so many people consider Korean pork barbecue and soju as the ultimate duo. But, I think that a lot of the love for soju comes from its affordability and the overall experience. Drinking soju is fun because you have it with your favorite friends, and not necessarily becaus eof the flavor of soju itself.
To be honest, I am not the biggest fan of liquor to begin with! I often have a hard time drinking anything stronger than wine. Still, I want enjoy and be a part of that culture when eating Korean food. When my husband and I cook Korean barbecue, for example, it is hard to resist the idea of opening the green bottle and enjoying some soju together.
So, soju cocktail is the perfect solution for me! Soju’s neutral flavor works really well as a cocktail base.
My Favorite Soju Cocktail: Soju and Tonic
For several reasons, my favorite soju cocktail is soju and tonic. First, I love how easy it is to make. You just need to stir two ounces of soju and four ounces of tonic water together. Then, finish it up by adding some lime slices as garnish. Honestly, you can probably make soju and tonic literally in less than a minute!
Secondly, soju and tonic is extremely forgiving. Not great at measuring out the exact amount of the ingredients? Not a problem at all! Because of soju’s relatively mild flavor, making soju and tonic is not an exact science. Do not hesitate to experiment a little bit, either–after making my soju and tonic recipe, try changing the ratio and ingredients to see what the you like!
And, last but not least, soju and tonic taste SO good! Just because soju and tonic is extremely easy to make does not mean that it is not good. It has a perfect balance between the mild sweetness of soju and slightly bitter, refreshing tonic water. Lime acts as perfect garnish because it adds a fresh citrus kick to the drink. While delicious by itself, soju and tonic is also great with Korean food that has high fat content like pork belly.
So, why don’t you try making this soju cocktail today? Let me know if you have any other ingredients that you like to add in your soju and tonic, or if you have other kinds of soju cocktail that you love.
What Is Your Favorite Soju Cocktail?
Did you enjoy reading all about the history of soju and how to make soju and tonic? If so, we would love to hear about it in the comment section below! Also, we listed some fun soju products available to ship below~
Other Korean Recipes You May Enjoy:
- Mayak Eggs (Korean Marinated Eggs)
- Korean Triangle Kimbap
- Korean Tuna Mayo Rice
- Romaine Sangchu Geotjeori (Korean Lettuce Salad)
- Maneul Jangajji (Korean Pickled Garlic)
- Gyeranjjim (Korean Steamed Eggs)
- Korean Barbecue Dipping Sauces
- Dalgona Coffee
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