Soju is an often overlooked category in America. World wide, it hosts the world’s number one selling spirit brand (Jinro Soju) and makes up 97% of the clear spirit consumption in South Korea. It is a relatively low alcohol clear spirit made from different grains (rice, wheat or barley) and starches (potatoes or sweet potatoes) meant to be consumed chilled in a communal atmosphere usually accompanied by food, often spicy Korean barbeque. It can also be substituted into any martini, bloody mary, negroni, highball, or collins in lieu of another clear spirit for a lower alcohol option, as it usually sits between 12% and 30% alcohol instead of 40% plus here in the States. Consider it a lower alcohol, more viscous, slightly sweeter alternative to other clear spirits. There are very lax rules to soju from the alcohol percentages, additives, and flavorings.
- The Classic: Jinro Soju. It is literally the best selling spirit brand in the world. Sip it chilled with family and friends. $12.99/750ML
- The New Yorker: West 32 Soju. West 32 is an ode to New York’s Korea Town, and a good example of how far Soju can reach and how it can be made anywhere. $19.99/750ML
- Tom’s new guilty pleasure: Damso Lychee Soju. A small 375ml bottle of soju flavored with lychee, a perfect light sweetener spin to top a gin & tonic, collins, highball, vodka soda, or sparkling water. $9.99/375ML
Soju’s cousin, Shochu, is quite the opposite. Their names are very similar, as the “so” and “sho” translate to burned, and the “ju” and “chu” translate to alcohol in Korean and Japanese respectively. These are distilled spirits, where sake is a fermented product, separating it entirely. Shochu is much stricter with its rules and regulations. It has a history dating back 500 years and has different appellations just like champagne and cognac. It is made with similar ferments, usually sweet potato, barley or rice. The big difference is purity, as no Shochu can have any additives and in the case of top shochu they can only be distilled once to show the purity of the distillate, designated as Honkaku. Shochu sits higher in alcohol than soju, usually between 25-35%.
- Mugi Hokka Honkaku Shochu. Made from Shooner barley and left to ferment for 17 whole days before a single distillation run in an atmospheric pot still in the Tensei Distillery in the Osaki Township in Kagoshima. If that’s not enough, they let it rest for five years in enamel tanks. Mugi Hokka shows notes of dark roasted coffee and dark chocolate. A perfect pairing for red meat, coffee and chocolate. $34.99/750ML
- Colorful Honkaku Sweet Potato Shochu. Made from two different sweet potatoes fermented with two different Koji yeast strains by two different distillers! A very rare occurrence. Colorful is how they describe the nose and palate as it is flush with papaya, nectarines, great florality, and a soft vegetal smoke in the background. $52.99/750ML
Now for the hard part, where does soju and shochu go on the shelf? There is no right or wrong answer. We have created a shelf in between vodka and gin that houses spirits that fit a small category and definitely do not belong with liqueurs. Here you will find soju, shochu, aquavit, grappa, amongst other distillates. Go explore next time you’re in the shop!