Walk into a Korean restaurant anywhere in the world and you will find soju and the ubiquitous green bottles it comes in. Brought to the Korean peninsula in the 13th century by the invading Mongols, it is now the most-sold spirit in the world, and – as South Korea’s national drink – a major part of Korean identity. Once the whisky of Korea with an ABV of 40-45%, soju’s alcohol content has trended downwards since the 1920’s, in line with consumer demands. This move away from traditionally brewed soju has also seen the introduction of fruit flavoured sojus like apple, peach, calamansi, and even carbonated variants. However, there’s been a recent shift against the status quo.
SETTING THE SOJU STAGE
As it stands, soju can be divided into two broad categories. The first: mass-produced with potatoes, sweet potatoes and tapioca. It’s cheap, widely available, and intended to be thrown back as shots with food. The second – and growing – variety is distilled primarily from rice, and much like whisky, is meant to be sipped and savoured. In recent years, the Korean government has relaxed regulations and given tax benefits to brewers of gayang-ju and jeongtong-ju, leading to a proliferation of traditional style brewers. Some of these have long brewing lineages, stretching back to the Joseon era, while others are new to the soju game, incorporating western distilling technology and techniques. As customers become more aware of this traditional revival, there’s been a breakaway from mass-produced soju towards slow distillation.
Lim Byung-jin, bartender and owner of Bar Cham notes that the old style of soju isn’t threatening the position of staple soju. Rather, the market is expanding to accommodate both styles. Within this expanding space, Bar Cham is leading the charge with soju-based cocktails. Although lacking the forwardness of whisky’s oaken notes, the sharp botanicals of gin or the rich sweetness of rum, Byung-jin is working to match soju’s subtle rice characteristics with spices and roots that are unique to Korea. As a result, each drink is a special tribute to Korea’s geography and culture.