This Thursday, Aug. 15, South Korea will celebrate the 68th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over—and hence Korea’s liberation from—the Empire of Japan. Many, many flags will be raised, just as they are every other major civic holiday. Many, many, many glasses of soju will be raised, also, just as they are every other single day in South Korea.
It is difficult to overstate how much of this stuff—most traditionally distilled from rice and conventionally described as a low-proof “Korean vodka”—the population goes through. Last month, K-pop star Psy—whose “Gangnam Style,” viewed a billion times over, remains the most-watched video on YouTube—told the Sunday Times that soju was his “best friend,” prompting his fans to explain that he is not, when viewed in proper cultural context, a degenerate lush: “As anyone who has ever lived or worked in South Korea can attest to, Koreans (particularly the men) drink for just about every occasion, and often times without a specific reason at all.”
The statistically typical South Korean adult drinks more than three times as much booze as his American counterpart, a chart-topping 9.6 liters of liquor per year. Whether he ought to slow down a bit is a matter of dispute. (Indeed, the record reflects that disputes—in the form of drunken fistfights—are no small part of the soju lifestyle.) But there is no doubt that the thirst for the native spirit—a 9-million-bottle-a-day habit—is responsible, year after year, for Jinro soju’s ranking as the best-selling booze brand in the world. We may safely expect Jinro to sell about 60 million 9-liter cases this year and for the runner-up, Smirnoff vodka, to move about 25 million. The only other field in which South Korea is so dominant is Olympic archery (a sport which, ironically or not, demands a steadiness of hand and soul inconsistent with the soju-hangover lifestyle).
Can this beverage conquer the American palate? Considering the blandness of soju—which tends to taste slightly sweet with round notes of tropical fruit or sharp ones of cheap syrup but really mostly tastes like nothing—I’d say it’s got a decent shot. Soju cocktails are appearing up and down the West Coast (including at Dodger Stadium, where concessioners sell bottles of Jinro’s Chamisul adorned with Psy’s face), and because lobbyists in California have persuaded legislators of soju’s centrality to Korean culture, it is available at “establishments previously licensed to sell only beer and wine.” In New York, the fellows behind the fashionable Momofuku empire continue to mess around with apple-soju aperitifs and lychee-soju slushies, while the restaurateurs on somewhat less fashionable West 32nd Street—on the blocks known locally as Koreatown—continue to serve soju-and-whatever-kind-of-fruit-juice-is-around. (A soju-and-whatever-juice is a refreshing complement to Korean barbecue, a cuisine best enjoyed—as it can be in Koreatown—beneath a white baby grand adjacent to an indoor waterfall.) The nice lady who makes those overpriced seaweed snacks has a soju bloody mary for you.
Herewith, tips for serving the world’s best-selling booze. Or not.
In Korea, soju intake is highly ritualized, as described in this Harvard anthropology paper on the qualia of drinking and also in this National Geographic Traveller piece: "I learned that by holding the bottle in both hands, I would be showing respect, and by turning and covering my mouth while imbibing, I was displaying even greater regard for older or higher-ranking colleagues."
The travel writer, eager to be a polite guest, fails to mention one thing: With many of the low-end brands—and there are a lot of low-end brands—covering one's mouth with one's hand while imbibing soju is a reflex flowing from the sensation that one may not be able to keep it down.
Soju is best served ice-cold, neat, as a small pour in a chilled traditional cup, over and over again, until the Samsung executive hosting you pulls out his corporate credit card.
Soju is usually best when slammed briskly, especially if it's Jinro Chamisul Classic, a brand distinguished by its oily burn. For a high-quality soju sipping experience on a budget, set sail for Charm Island soju. When I tell you about its notes of whipped cream and vanilla, you may get the idea that Charm Island is located just off the coast of Candyland, but it’s relatively mellow—as clean and subtle as a beverage reminiscent of coconut-cream pie can possibly be.
In Western stores and semi-Americanized restaurants, the most popular bottle of the most popular labels of this most popular beverage is the 375-milliliter bottle. The real fun involves 200-milliliter bottle of Jinro 24, and that's because it's not a bottle. It's, like, a juice box. Very convenient for traveling.
I stuck a tongue depressor into a carton of Jinro 24, put it in the freezer, and dreamed about it turning into a jumbo popsicle. (In liquid form, Jinro 24 is inoffensive with a few earthy notes, as befits an unfussy distillate of sweet potatoes and tapioca.) Unfortunately, it wouldn't freeze all the way. (Jinro 24 is among the stiffest of mass-market sojus—24 percent alcohol—which is another reason it's good for traveling.) So instead, I rinsed a chilled old-fashioned glass with pear liqueur, dumped the soju slush in, squeezed a lemon on top, and declared a lazy victory.
Elementary-Level Mixing Tips
Online research indicates that watermelon-soju cocktails are somewhat popular. In-the-field reporting—that is, bumbling into a Koreatown restaurant which, lacking a white piano or an indoor waterfall, is decorated with old chopstick wrappers scrawled with patrons’ messages—indicates that people who love watermelon-soju cocktails will express it by writing, "I ♥ watermelon soju." Ask yourself: Are those the kind of people I want to be hosting?
Intermediate-Level Mixing Tips
I arrived at this recipe after realizing that soju is so soft an ingredient that too much of any other ingredient will fully unveil its vodka-like lack of character. With my blessings, please substitute any other Pacific-Rim white liquor, such as blanco tequila, for the pisco.
The Sassy Sojurita
2½ ounces soju
½ ounce fresh lime juice
barspoon orange liqueur
2 dashes pisco
Shake quickly but hard with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Serve.
A Special Tribute to the Well-Known Soju of Our Supreme Leader
There is a South Korean national named Il Woo Park who is a legal permanent resident of the United States and, allegedly, a spy, and whose FBI file is, I presume on the basis of this TPM story, totally bonkers. He somehow has sufficient contacts among his home country's totalitarian neighbor to have scored a job as the importer of Pyongyang Soju. This seems to be the only North Korean product available for the sale in the U.S. I purchased a bottle at a liquor store on Broadway in downtown Manhattan. I am wincing at that bottle as I type.
What is Pyongyang Soju made of? "73% maize, 25% rice, and 2% glutinous rice." What is its slogan? "Well-known soju." How stiff is it? "Alc. 23% by volume." How do North Koreans drink it? I will never know.
Pyongyang Soju is, hands down, the grossest thing that has ever been in my mouth—a category that includes Vegemite, gefilte fish, and beer-soaked cigarette butts. Its aroma is industrial, its bouquet post-industrial, its finish post-apocalyptic. Two sips killed my palate for 36 hours. At the risk of seeming insensitive, I must wonder whether there truly is a famine in North Korea or this stuff is just putting people off their appetite.