Thursday, April 28, 2011

Drinking in Korea: Soju Part 1

I like to say that Koreans are the Irish of Asia. Koreans like to drink. Oh hell yes they like to drink. Drinking culture in Korea is actually very fascinating and really sophisticated, so I wanted to write a few articles about drinking in Korea.

And what else could be a better candidate to start with than Soju?

First Google image search result of 'Soju'.

Korean Alcohol - Soju, what is it?

Hello Wikipedia.
"Soju (Hangul 소주; Hanja 燒酒) is a distilled beverage native to Korea. Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter due to the sugars added in the manufacturing process, and more commonly consumed neat.

Though traditionally made from rice, most major brands supplement or even replace the rice with other starches such as potato, wheat, barley, sweet potato, or tapioca. Soju is clear in colour and typically varies in alcohol content from about 18.5% to about 45% alcohol by volume."

Soju is generally around 20% alcohol content, and clear. It comes in those green bottles you see in the picture above, generally. It is the primary alcoholic drink of Korea... because it's available about anywhere, and ridiculously cheap (a dollar for a bottle or so).
For first timers, it smells like rubbing alcohol, and tastes like... uh, rubbing alcohol. Yes, you'll get used to it after a few shots, but in most cases I've seen, first timers with Soju never ended up well.
The exact process of how soju is made and other details will be discussed in another entry, since there's a lot to it.

What kinds of Soju are there? (By location)

Image from Naver

That is the map of South Korea. From top left to right, then bottom left to right:
1. O2 Rin, or Malgurin (맑은린) 
Where : South Chung-cheong
Alcohol Content : 19.5%

2. Cham-Yi-Seul Fresh (참이슬 후레시)
Where : Seoul and Kyung-gi
Alcohol Content : 19.8%

3. Chuh-Um-Chu-Rum (처음처럼)
Where : Kwang-won
Alcohol Content : 19.5%

4. See-won (시원)
Where : North Chung-cheong
Alcohol Content : 20%

5. Cham Soju (참소주)
Where : Daegu, North Kyung-san
Alcohol Content : 19.7%

6. Han-La-San-Mool (한라산물)
Where : Jeju Island
Alcohol Content : 21%

7. Ip-Se-Ju (잎새주)
Where : Gwang-ju, South Jun-La
Alcohol Content : 20.1%

8. Hite (하이트) [Author : Not to be confused with Hite beer]
Where : North Jun-La
Alcohol Content : 21%

9. White (화이트)
Where : Ul-san, South Kyung-san
Alcohol Content : 20.5%

10. C1 (시원)
Where : Busan
Alcohol Content : 20%

List goes on and on. This only counts the regular, generic soju. There's the well-known An-dong soju (40% Alcohol content) too.

The largest Soju manufacturer is Jinro. Their trademark soju Cham-yi-seoul sells all over the world in over 60 nations. This is also the kind of Soju you'll probably see in the USA as well. But sometimes, depending on the store you're at and the location you live in, you might see some others too. From my experience in LA, Chamyiseoul is usually the most expensive one (3~4 dollars per bottle at a grocery store), and Cham soju or chuh-um-chu-rum being the cheaper ones (I've seen them as cheap as 2 dollars per bottle.)

Next up, more sophisticated kinds of Soju, how to drink Soju with Koreans, drinking games, cocktails, and more!

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