Soju: What is it and why people love it

Neutral spirits like vodka have less of a fan base than, say, gin or rum. Whiskies in particular have a huge following, being one of the most valuable type of spirit out there, spawning legions of collectors and connoisseurs.

How is it then, that the humble soju, also a neutral spirit, has become such a popular alcoholic beverage, especially among the young?

To be clear, we’re not saying that neutral spirits are unpopular. They’re not. People drink vodka all the time. Folks just aren’t as enthusiastic about them, since there’s little or less nuance to talk about with a flavorless drink.

Less thinking, more drinking

Perhaps that’s why people actually don’t talk too much about soju. They just drink them. There’s no nosing of the spirit in a tasting glass, no looking out for floral notes on the palate, or what have you. You shoot the drink, fill up your glass, and go for another.

Perhaps that’s where the allure of soju lies. It reasons that one drinks soju purely for enjoyment, not so much appreciation. There’s no need to be wrecking your head about the liquid you’re drinking when downing soju. You’re simply allowed to let loose.

Needless to say, this beverage has its origins rooted in Korea. And therein lies another clue as to why soju has proliferated. Korean culture, with its infections K-pop music and addictive K-dramas being so easily accessible these days, has brought along with it other Korean sensibilities as it spreads around the world.

In Korean dramas especially, you often see friends, family and coworkers enjoying soju together, often in a romanticized, down-to-earth setting. It feels warm, people are connected talking about their daily lives, and you just want to be there and have that feeling too.

It’s no coincidence then that drinking of soju in Korea is a communal activity. Koreans drink it together with colleagues after work at a pojangmacha (a tented street stall) while having anju (food meant to be consumed with alcohol). Or they meet up with friends over barbecue and do rounds after rounds of soju shots.

The cares of the world simply floats away as you enjoy good drink and good food with the right company.

But what is soju?

There’s no magical ingredient in soju that gives it such an effect. Like vodka, soju is made from starchy vegetables such as potato, or from grains like barley or rice. The end-result is the same, a distilled neutral spirit.

While vodka usually proofs at around 40% ABV, soju is usually found at around the low 20s in terms of alcohol by volume. This does mean soju is easier to shoot than a vodka shot, the latter of which many find too unpalatable and burning when downed neat.

The texture of soju is slightly more viscous as well, giving it a better mouthfeel. It is also slightly sweeter. Not to mention the many, many flavors that soju producers tend to release their bottles in too, like apple, grape and peach, among many others. This kaleidoscope of easy options likely adds to the appeal for the younger crowd.

In fact, one of the most popular ways to drink soju is with Yakult (yes, the probiotic drink). It’s as simple as it sounds. Just combine soju with your choice of Yakult flavor, and you got a classic. We recommend a 1:1 bottle (soju usually comes in 375ml bottles and Yakult in 65ml ones) mix for something that’s not too sweet, palatable and best had with food.

The fruit flavors from Yakult actually does complement the often-neutral soju well, which explains its popularity. Alternatively, watermelon soju jugs are also a hit. Here, fresh watermelon juice is mixed with soju in a jug, then served. It’s as simple as that.

It’s not complicated

Soju isn’t hard to understand. It’s enjoyable in its simplicity, and therefore widespread acceptance as a drink for comfort.

Soju is a working person’s drink, meant to alleviate your work stresses by getting you tipsy, but more importantly, by being a social lubricant. No talk of blends, terroir or benefits of fractional distillation here. Soju is just soju. After all, jargon divides while simplicity unites.

More so than other types of alcohol, soju brings people together. So whether you’re drinking at home or at a Korean BBQ joint, the next time you open a bottle of soju, be sure to gather round a few of the closest people in your life.

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