To us, and we’re sure to many who enjoy eating, the pairing of a meal with a complementary beverage is a beautiful thing, but one which often seems intimidating. After all, haute cuisine restaurants can either prosper or fail on the recommendations of their sommeliers. Just imagine you ordered a $500 bottle of vintage Burgundy (I mean, just imagine being able to do that for a moment – my mind just went blank and my palms became clammy) upon the recommendation of a supercilious, wide-nostriled sommelier (I’m thinking of that jester Stephen from an old season of Top Chef), to bring out the quintessence of your miniaturized, de-constructed, North African-perfumed pot-au-feu with zabar and preserved lemon spiced foam only to discover that the wine he chose makes the wonderfully complex and magnificently-presented dish taste like the floor of a rest-stop bathroom. You’d be a tad miffed, eh?
Well, fear not, kind readers, for we are definitely not in the business of recommending high-end wine pairings, in fact, our wine recommendations, such as they are, tend to be in the $8-$12 range, where you’ll find plenty of very drinkable, but mostly forgettable, plonk, that even when corked or tasting like a wet dog, is a financial loss that most of us can live with. No, instead of suggesting wine pairings, we’re beginning a new monthly feature today that focuses on beverages that you might not be that familiar with in the hope that you’ll try them, enjoy them, perhaps even come to love them given enough time and support from your family and friends.
The first recommendation then, is the delicious, but relatively unknown, Korean beverage soju. Almost everyone knows of sake – the “wine” (properly, sake is a beer, not a wine, because it is produced through brewing) made from rice that can be found in nearly every sushi restaurant, and that many of you have tried in several forms – hot, cold, clear, and unfiltered, but just across the Sea of Japan, the Koreans have been making a different kind of clear, rice-based beverage for about 700 years.
A Little History
Around A.D 1300, the Mongols introduced the technique of distilling liquor from grain to Korea, a nifty trick they had learned from the Persians, who had taught them it some 70 years earlier. All of which was very magnanimous considering the Persians had just been slaughtered mercilessly by the Mongol hordes as they rampaged across the steppes of central Asia. The Koreans then, seeing that distillation was indeed a meritorius concept began setting up distilleries around the city of Kaesong immediately, a tradition of distilling that is still maintained in that city to this day. And the trend spread. Today, soju is produced throughout the Korean peninsular, both in the north and south, by a great number of different companies.
Traditionally, soju is distilled from rice, but from 1965 to the early 1990s the (south) Korean government forbade the use of fermented grain for soju production due to its scarcity. Because of this, many soju manufacturers began using pure ethanol derived from a variety of sources including potato, barley and tapioca mixed with water and various flavorings to make the drink, though some have since returned to more traditional methods.
Drunk in the West
Typically, soju’s alcohol content is around the 20% ABV mark, though there is a considerable range with some soju’s being as strong as a vodka, at around 40% alcohol. In terms of taste, some compare soju to vodka because of its clear color and relatively neutral taste, but to my mind, soju is considerably sweeter than vodka (often because sugar or corn syrup is added to it), though I should stress it is far from a sweet or sugary beverage. Some soju we’ve drunk has had a slightly appley kind of flavor, though most of them have barely perceptible flavors that are crisp on the tongue but without the fumes that characterize vodkas. And, it is this neutral/slightly sweet flavor, clarity and reasonably high-alcohol content that has made soju the new sake in designer cocktails. For example, in upscale Manhattan bars the sake-tini (a martini with sake instead of vodka or gin) is now the soju-tini, and the sake-rinha (a caipirinha with the cachaca replaced by sake) is now the soju-rinha.
A Traditional & Popular Tipple
Of course, this is a far cry from how soju is served in Korea. Usually taken at large social gatherings, soju is always taken unmixed and out of shot-sized glasses, and often knocked back in one go. Etiquette forbids the filling of one’s own glass as this promotes selfishness and greed. Instead, it must be filled by someone else, promoting camaraderie and thoughtfulness for others. The traditional way of pouring soju is quite a complicated ritual that requires the pourer to hold the bottle in their right hand while touching their right forearm or elbow with their left hand. The recipient of the soju should then hold out their glass in the palm of their left hand and steady it with their right hand while bowing their head towards the pourer as a sign of thanks.
In spite of this ritual and the availability of western alcoholic drinks like whiskey and vodka, soju remains one of the most popular drinks in Korea with around 3 billion bottles consumed annually, or 90 bottles per adult per year. Containing around 7 shots per 350 ml bottle, this means that every Korean adult drinks a bottle of soju themselves every four days. Fair play to them for really enjoying their national drink!
Soju in America
So, now that you’re clued-up on what soju is, I suspect you’ll be wanting to know where you can get your hands on some. Well, your local Korean restaurant is the best place to start, of course, and it’s quite likely that they will have several different kinds – some better, some worse – on their menu for you to sample. Korean-owned grocery stores are also likely spots because, perhaps curiously, in California and New York, soju is classed under the same liquor licensing laws as beer.
We definitely encourage you to give soju a try. Don’t be scared. It’s not going to blow your head off, unless you’ve never had a drink before, that is, but just because it’s classed the same as beer at the store, doesn’t mean that you can have a bottle of it to yourself and then get in your car and drive home. Not only is drinking and driving dangerous and illegal, but you’d also be behaving selfishly and greedily, and that is not in the spirit of drinking soju!