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Soju 101: A Definitive Guide to Soju –  History, Types, and Drinking Tips

Soju 101: A Definitive Guide to Soju - History, Drinking Tips, and Culinary Uses

Embark on a tantalizing journey with Thirst as we dive into the enigmatic world of Korea’s beloved spirit – Soju! This comprehensive guide is your passport to uncovering the fascinating history behind this iconic libation, exploring the myriad types it has to offer, and learning the time-honored traditions of savoring this bewitching elixir.

 Prepare your taste buds for an enthralling expedition as you explore Soju 101 – your indispensable ally, brought to you by Thirst, in unraveling the enigma surrounding this delectable Korean gem. From its ancient origins to modern-day rituals, prepare to be spellbound by the charm and allure of soju. So, raise a glass and toast to the adventure that awaits – 건배 (geonbae)!

What is Soju?

Soju is a popular Korean alcoholic beverage that has gained international recognition for its smooth taste and versatility. It is a clear, colorless spirit traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley. However, due to historical circumstances and changes in production methods, other starches, such as sweet potatoes, tapioca, and even corn, can be used as a base for soju. The varying levels of sweetness make it an ideal drink to pair with a wide range of Korean dishes, from savory barbecue to spicy stews.

Popularity of Soju

In recent years, soju has experienced a surge in global popularity, with more people discovering the unique taste and cultural significance of this Korean spirit. Soju bars and restaurants have popped up in major cities around the world, and many non-Korean establishments have started offering soju cocktails on their menus. This increased interest in soju has led to its ranking as one of the best-selling spirits globally.

Brief History of Soju

The history of soju dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) in Korea, where it was first introduced as a distilled liquor following the Mongolian invasions. The distillation techniques, borrowed from the Persians, were later refined during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Soju then became an integral part of Korean culture, with its production and consumption deeply rooted in traditional rituals and social gatherings.

In the 1960s, Korea faced rice shortages, prompting the government to ban the use of rice in soju production. This led to the adoption of alternative starches like sweet potatoes and tapioca. Today, soju is produced using various methods, including both traditional and modern techniques, which contribute to its diverse range of flavors and alcohol content.

What is Soju Made of?

Soju production begins with a fermented mixture of grains such as rice, wheat, or barley, or alternative starches like sweet potatoes, tapioca, and corn. The fermentation process involves the addition of a fermentation starter called “nuruk”, a traditional Korean fermentation agent that contains various enzymes. These enzymes break down the starches into sugars, which are then converted into alcohol by yeast.

After fermentation, the liquid is distilled to produce soju. The distillation process can vary depending on the producer and method used, with some opting for traditional techniques like single or multiple pot distillations, while others employ modern methods such as continuous column distillation.

Alcohol Percentage of Soju

The alcohol content of soju varies depending on the brand and production method, but it typically ranges between 16% and 25% ABV (alcohol by volume). Some premium soju brands may have a higher alcohol content, while others may be diluted to create a milder, smoother taste. Due to its potency, it is essential to consume soju responsibly.

Types of Soju

There are several types of soju available, each with its unique characteristics and flavors. The distinct varieties cater to different preferences and occasions, making it a versatile beverage for both casual and formal gatherings. Below are some of the most popular types of soju:

1. Traditional Soju

Traditional soju is the classic, unflavored version of this Korean spirit. It is typically made from rice, wheat, or barley and has a smooth, slightly sweet taste that pairs well with a wide range of Korean dishes. Traditional soju is often enjoyed straight from small shot glasses, and its alcohol content can range from 16% to 25% ABV. Some popular brands of traditional soju include Chamisul, Chum Churum, and Andong.

2. Flavored Soju

Flavored soju is a modern take on the classic spirit, infused with various flavors to enhance its taste and appeal. These flavored sojus often have a lower alcohol content than traditional soju, making them a popular choice for those who prefer a milder, more accessible drink. 

Common flavors include yogurt, green tea, coffee, and honey, among others. Flavored soju can be enjoyed straight, mixed with other beverages, or used as a base for cocktails.

3. Fruit Soju

Fruit soju is a type of flavored soju that specifically incorporates fruit flavors into the spirit. These fruity variations are popular for their refreshing taste and vibrant colors, making them an excellent choice for warm weather or festive occasions. Popular fruit soju flavors include grapefruit, peach, apple, and blueberry. Like other flavored sojus, fruit soju can be consumed straight, mixed with other drinks, or incorporated into cocktails.

4. Soju Cocktails

Soju’s versatility and smooth taste make it an ideal base for a variety of cocktails. Creative mixologists have developed numerous soju cocktail recipes that showcase the spirit’s unique flavor profile while incorporating other ingredients for added depth and complexity. 

Some popular soju cocktails include the Soju Sunrise (soju, orange juice, and grenadine), the Soju Mojito (soju, mint leaves, lime, sugar, and soda water), and the Soju Martini (soju, vermouth, and olives or a lemon twist). These cocktails offer a fun and innovative way to enjoy soju beyond traditional methods.

What to Mix with Soju – Popular Soju Cocktails

1. Soju Bomb (Soju + Beer) & Coke

This classic combination is easy to make and always a crowd-pleaser. All you need is one shot of soju, a bottle of beer, and a can of Coke. Pour the soju into a glass, add the beer, then top off with coke. Enjoy!

2. Soju Latte (Soju + Coffee)

This unique mix combines two favorite drinks into one delicious concoction. To make this cocktail, simply mix one shot of soju with your favorite brewed or instant coffee and sweetener or sugar syrup to taste. It’s an interesting twist on your morning cup of joe!

Soju vs Sake

Soju and sake are both popular Asian alcoholic beverages, but they differ in various aspects, including their origin, ingredients, production process, and taste.

Soju is a Korean distilled spirit made from rice, wheat, barley, or other starches like sweet potatoes and tapioca. It has a clear, colorless appearance and a smooth, slightly sweet taste. The alcohol content of soju typically ranges from 16% to 25% ABV.

Sake, on the other hand, is a Japanese fermented rice wine. It is made from polished rice, koji (a fermentation starter), water, and yeast. Sake has a more complex flavor profile, which can be fruity, floral, or earthy, depending on the specific type and quality. The alcohol content of sake is generally lower than that of soju, ranging from 14% to 16% ABV.

While both soju and sake are enjoyable beverages with unique characteristics, they cater to different tastes and preferences.

How to Drink Soju

There are several ways to enjoy soju, from traditional customs to modern innovations:

  1. Traditional method: Soju is often consumed straight from small shot glasses, accompanied by a variety of Korean dishes. When drinking soju, it is customary to pour for others at the table and receive it with both hands as a sign of respect.
  2. Mixed drinks: Soju can be mixed with other beverages, such as beer or soft drinks, to create refreshing concoctions. For example, “soju bomb” or “somaek” is a popular mixture of soju and beer.
  3. Cocktails: As mentioned earlier, soju’s versatility makes it an ideal base for various cocktails, like the Soju Sunrise, Soju Mojito, and Soju Martini.
  4. Infusions: You can create your own flavored soju by infusing it with fruits, herbs, or spices. Simply place your desired ingredients in a jar with soju and let it sit for a few days to a week, depending on the desired intensity of flavor.


1. Is soju healthy?

Like any alcoholic beverage, soju should be consumed in moderation. While moderate alcohol consumption may have some health benefits, excessive drinking can lead to serious health issues. Soju itself is relatively low in calories compared to other spirits, but it’s essential to drink responsibly and maintain a balanced diet.

2. What kind of alcohol is soju?

Soju is a distilled alcoholic beverage originating from Korea. It is primarily made from fermented grains such as rice, wheat, or barley or alternative starches like sweet potatoes, tapioca, and corn.

3. Is soju stronger than vodka?

Soju typically has a lower alcohol content than vodka. The alcohol content of soju ranges between 16% and 25% ABV, while vodka usually has an alcohol content of around 40% ABV.

4. Is soju highly alcoholic?

Soju’s alcohol content can vary depending on the brand and production method, but it generally falls between 16% and 25% ABV. While this makes it less potent than some other spirits like vodka or whiskey, it is still considered a strong alcoholic beverage and should be consumed responsibly.

5. Is soju a wine or alcohol?

Soju is a distilled alcoholic beverage, not a wine. While it shares some similarities with sake, a Japanese rice wine, soju is a spirit made through the distillation process rather than fermentation alone. 

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