Korean nationals certainly take pride in soju, their widely consumed national spirit that is ubiquitous in Korean-American communities throughout the country and is enjoyed in a variety of ways—chilled or mixed with a number of beverages, including bek-seju (a strong ginger-spiced wine), yogurt or even beer.
Soju is the second most consumed spirit in the world (according to a recent report by Forbes magazine), but when you bring it up around westerners not hip to Asian drinks, few have even heard of it. This is bound to change, since large producers like Jinro and Charm have been hard at work introducing the spirit to American audiences. “Recently we launched the ‘Kimchi Chronicles’ project with PBS,” explains David Kim of Jinro America via email. “Other than our various ads and sponsorships through local events, we are focusing on selling Jinro to the local mainstream market, such as Albertsons, Restaurant Depot, etc.”
Jinro America was featured at the latest edition of The New York Bar & Restaurant Show at the Jacob Javits Center in Midtown Manhattan early last summer. Their stand drew a lot of curious people—many who were being introduced to soju for the first time. The company also showcased other products from their portfolio, such as Hite beer (a light-flavored brew similar to Corona) and a variety of rice wines.
Traditionally distilled from rice and sweetened through a filtering process that includes several herbs (they vary from brand to brand), soju packs a potent average of eighteen-t0-twenty-four-percent alcohol, but quite less than the forty percent of vodka or rum. That, however, comes as a double advantage. The first is that you can enjoy the beverage without becoming drunk after a couple of shots. The other is that because of its lower alcohol content, soju can be marketed in establishments that do not have a full liquor license. “This is a selling point for us,” explains Kim. “For bars and restaurants with only a beer and wine license, they can still serve a cocktail using our Jinro as a base instead of vodka with the same ‘kick-in’ taste.”
The flavor of soju is quite unique when compared to other similar spirits. When drinking straight, it has a lightly sweet flavor and a clean finish. Thanks to the lower alcohol content, there is almost no burn (which is felt at room temperature, though), and when mixed with fruit juice or other beverages it does not overpower the mix at all. According to Kim, this flavor happens (at least as far as Jinro is concerned) because it is “filtered four times with charcoals made from bamboo in Korea. This filtration method leaves the clean and smooth tasting soju.”
As for food pairings, since we are talking about what is basically a neutral spirit, soju works with pretty much any kind of food—especially Asian. I usually drink it alongside kimbap (Korea’s answer to sushi) or cold noodles. Once made as a cocktail, the possibilities are endless—which makes it just a matter of time until Korea’s national spirit becomes more widespread. Kim says they have gotten “very good feedback from bars and restaurants” in their current effort to bring soju to mainstream drinkers. (Ernest Barteldes)
In Chicago, soju can be found at Chicago Food Corp (chicagofood.com) or in restaurants like Korean Seoulfood (korean-seoulfood.com) or Pingpong Restaurant (pingpongrestaurant.com). For more information and cocktail suggestions, visit jinrousa.com.