For nearly 20 consecutive years, the best-selling liquor brand worldwide hasn’t been Smirnoff vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky or Bacardi rum. It’s Jinro soju, one of several green-bottled liquors found in nearly every Korean restaurant or grocery worldwide.
Despite this global footprint, soju, the national distilled beverage of Korea, and shochu, its Japanese cousin, are often misunderstood in the U.S., where they are sometimes mislabeled as Korean or Japanese vodka.
Both are derived from the Chinese term shaojiu, meaning burnt liquor, referring to their production by distillation. Yet the two families of spirits have key distinctions in production, history and style.
Ingredients and Production
Contemporary, mass-produced forms of soju and shochu are fermented primarily from processed sugars and commodity starches like molasses or tapioca. Distilled repeatedly in high-volume continuous stills, industrial versions of both spirits are derived from highly pure ethanol to produce a clear liquor with intentionally neutral aromas and flavors.
Traditionally produced, artisanal examples of shochu and soju are entirely different from their mass-produced kin. Rooted in ancient production methods, traditional soju and shochu spotlight the distinct aromas and flavors of base materials like rice, barley and sweet potatoes. Such ingredients are often closely linked to local or regional agricultural heritage.
A step higher in alcohol than industrially produced versions, artisanal shochu and soju are profoundly complex, aromatic, flavorful and even funky in style. Served in myriad ways, these soulful spirits are anything but neutral.
Artisanal shochu and soju are profoundly complex, aromatic, flavorful and even funky in style. These soulful spirits are anything but neutral.
Documented history of soju production in Korea dates to the 13th century. According to Kyungmoon Kim, MS, owner of Woorisoul, one of the few importers of Korean artisanal alcoholic beverages to the United States, Korea has a long, storied history of handcrafted soju derived primarily from rice. This rich history was cut off in 1965 as food shortages following the Korean War prompted the South Korean government to ban the production of alcohol derived from rice and other grains.
As traditional craft soju was eradicated on a commercial scale, large corporations churned out indistinguishable brands of inexpensive, industrial soju to take its place. At roughly 16–25% alcohol by volume (abv), mass-produced soju, referred widely as green-bottle soju, tends to be flavored or sweetened with additives and served neat or in shots.
Korea’s prohibition on grain-based alcohol production was lifted in 1999. Kim says that his generation, “or even my father’s and grandfather’s generation, all grew up on green bottles.” Until very recently, expressions of traditional soju were rarely available or recognized by many Korean consumers.
In the last five years, however, “there’s been a dramatic change in Korean beverage culture,” says Kim, “driven by generations of millennials tired of the mass brands that everyone knows.” He believes modern Korean consumers “are seeking smaller, artisanal producers and products with unique stories.”
And so, traditional soju, alongside a bevy of other traditional Korean alcoholic beverages, is undergoing an exciting rebirth as “a small handful of producers who kept their traditions are reviving old methods, many from scratch,” says Kim.