Dubbed the Korean vodka, soju is Korea’s most popular alcohol—and in 2017, the world’s best-selling liquor. With the average South Korean consuming 13.7 shots of alcohol weekly, the highest rate in the world, soju consistently dominates liquor sales. The brand Jinro, in particular, (you’ve probably seen the iconic green bottle) has been topping the list yearly for almost two decades. So what exactly is soju?
It's a "mild, almost watered-down vodka," says chef Esther Choi of New York’s Mŏkbar, a Korean ramen shop in Chelsea Market that serves soju cocktails and flights. Thanks to its mellow flavor, soju is highly versatile. You can drink it straight up or mix it in a cocktail. "It's easily disguised, able to blend in with whatever ingredients you put in," Choi says. "People love soju cocktails because you can’t taste the alcohol."
Customarily enjoyed as shots over dinner, the liquor is at the heart of the Korean dining experience. “Soju is always the center of a dinner table,” Choi says. “It’s not like any other culture. It really is a part of every single meal, just like how wine would be for a tasting menu.”
The liquor is traditionally made from three ingredients, says chef Jenny Kwak of Brooklyn’s Haenyeo Restaurant: sweet rice, nuruk (yeast), and water. But when a shortage of rice after the Korean War caused the South Korean government to ban using rice for soju, manufacturers were forced to look to other starches, like barley and sweet potato. Therefore, various soju brands on the mass market today, like Jinro and Chum Churum, still use sweet potato in their products.
However, smaller distilleries in Korea are beginning to harken back to the traditional rice-made soju. These dedicated brands, like Damsoul and Samhae, though slightly harder to find, produce soju with more refined, delicate notes. “They can sip like wine or cognac and there are nuances that may be described about them as you would high-end sake and tequilas,” Kwak says.
Kwak, who was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, has been an ambassador for Korean cuisine since her first restaurant, Don Suni, opened in the East Village in 1993. Haenyeo, her exciting Korean fusion restaurant that opened in 2018, is “a continuation of that journey.” Evolving her dishes to incorporate global flavors—like Haenyeo’s bestselling Rice Cake Fundido, a Korean-Mexican-Swiss fusion—Kwak also upgraded her drinks menu and sourced harder-to-find, rice-based soju options. Soju has always been the perfect partner to her staple Korean dishes, but now, at Haenyeo, she wants to “introduce soju as a standalone drink” and as a spirit that can also mix well with global flavors.
Kwak shares traditional soju etiquette: "Always pour for guests and [those] older than you, use both hands to hold the bottle, and always offer a shot, stranger or not, from your bottle in good conversation.”
Although the classic way to drink soju is by taking shots with classic Korean dishes like a spicy jjigae broth or grilled samgyeopsal, it’s a great clear-spirit cocktail alternative. Kwak prefers it shaken super cold in a martini glass with a simple cucumber rind, but "any cocktail that you enjoy with a white spirit on ice or straight up, like martinis, margaritas, daiquiris, you can substitute with soju.”
If you’re ready to incorporate the world’s best-selling liquor in your repertoire, we compiled chef-approved soju cocktail recipes for you to try. Cheers—or should we say geonbae?
Inspired by the classic mojito, this minty drink from the Mŏkbar menu is a refreshing, fruity option.
- 1 sprig perilla leaves (or mint)
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice or half a lime cut in slices
- 1 oz. fresh berries or berry juice
- 1 oz. simple syrup
- 2 oz. soju
- Fresh berry (for garnish)
- Perilla sprig (for garnish)
Place perilla leaves, lime, and berries in a Collins glass and use a muddler to crush the ingredients. Add the syrup. Fill the glass with ice. Pour soju over the ice and add seltzer. Garnish with a berry and perilla leaf.
Soju Iced Tea
A light cocktail that’s reminiscent of summer, this recipe is inspired by a drink at Mokbar.
- Tea bag of choice
- 2 oz Jinro Soju
In a mason jar, steep tea bag in boiling hot water for 5-10 minutes, depending on tea preferences. Remove the tea bag and let cool. Add soju and fill the jar with ice. Serve.
A bestseller at Haenyeo, a restaurant named after legendary female divers in Jeju Island, Coquille is a “light, refreshing, pink-shaded cocktail, reminiscent of a small sea shell,” Kwak says. It’s served in a highball glass with ice.
- 2 oz. Hwayo Soju
- 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
- 1/4 oz. Giffard Banane du Brésil
- 4 mint leaves
- 1 tsp. agave syrup
- Club soda
- 1 tbsp. Lillet Rose
- Mint sprig
In a shaker, add soju, lime juice, Banana du Brésil, mint leaves, and agave. Add an ice cube and shake until melted. Pour into a Collins glass and add crushed ice. Top with club soda. Leave a bit of room to float a tablespoon of Lillet Rose. Garnish with a mint sprig and enjoy with a straw.
Another Haenyeo favorite, Kwak says this is a “very special soju martini” served dry, dirty, and chilled.
- 2 oz. Damsoul soju
- 3/4 oz. cucumber dashi liquid (or pickle juice) (recipe below)
- 1/4 oz. dry vermouth
- Cucumber slices
Add soju, cucumber dashi liquid, and vermouth in a mixing glass. Fill the glass with ice. Stir for 10 seconds. Using a julep strainer, strain the mix into a chilled coupe or martini glass. Garnish with cucumber slices.
Cucumber dashi ingredients
- 2 cucumbers
- 1 tbsp. salt
- 4 cups water
- 1 piece of kombu (about six inches by six inches)
- 1/2 cup of Korean brewing vinegar (or white vinegar)
Cucumber dashi preparation
Cut cucumbers into half-inch-thick slices. Mix salt with cucumber and marinate for 20 minutes. Add water, kombu, and vinegar. Cover and let chill overnight.