The Seoul Power of Soju

A rare chance to sample Korea's favorite booze

Nobody ever talks about the good things that came from marauding Mongol hordes.

It's true that when Genghis Khan's son Ogdei ordered his armies into the Korean peninsula in 1231, their battlefield tactics were almost ludicrously gruesome. As one account puts it, "Perhaps the most grisly weapon used at the siege of Kusong was the catapult-launched fire-bomb. The Mongols boiled down their captives and used liquefied human fat to fuel a weapon which produced fires that were practically inextinguishable."

But once the invaders had sacked the capital and exacted their victors' spoils—"10,000 otter skins, 20,000 horses, 10,000 bolts of silk, clothing for 1,000,000 soldiers, and a large number of children and artisans who would become slaves"—they offered in return some valuable pieces of culture. Marauding armies tend to pick up odd bits of lore in the course of their pillaging, and sometime during their rampage through the Middle East, the Mongols learned to distill an Arabic liquor called arak. This was typically made from grapes, but in Korea the occupiers went all locavore and adapted the technique for a rice-based beverage. When the Khan's forces finally withdrew, the distilleries they started remained. And so, tradition has it, arose the Korean staple known as soju. It now has a near-universal presence on that South Korea's dining tables akin to that of wine in Italy or sake in Japan.

In this column I usually stick to things that you can actually purchase and consume in East Tennessee, so I should note up front that as far as I know you cannot at the moment find soju in Knoxville. But it has been making inroads in the U.S. since 1998, when California passed a law exempting it from the state's liquor licensing requirements. According to the Los Angeles Times, that was prompted by complaints from California's large Korean population that they were unable to buy their favorite booze at their local grocers and restaurants. Predictably, non-Korean establishments started picking up on it, too. Soon, hipster bars were whipping up all kinds of soju cocktails. Jinro, which is sort of the Budweiser of soju in Korea, has a whole website dedicated to its American arm——and brags that soju has now been "the world's best-selling spirit for six consecutive years."

So when a friend volunteered to bring me back a bottle from a recent jaunt to New Orleans (where soju is available), it was hard to say no. This friend, henceforth known as Dr. Seoul, lived in South Korea for years and had often spoken fondly of soju. He and I convened with another dedicated tippler, Area Man, to share the surprisingly mild-mannered drink. Area Man had visited Dr. Seoul in Korea a few years back, and was well versed in soju culture.

The first thing the two of them told me, as Dr. Seoul laid out three shot glasses, was that we were doing this all wrong: Soju is meant to be drunk with a big meal of Korean food, and we lacked for so much as a forkful of kimchi.

Typically, Dr. Seoul says, bottles of soju will appear on a restaurant table as soon as you sit down, and they will keep coming as quickly as you can empty them. Soju in Korea is very cheap, so there's no real incentive to drink slowly.

We certainly didn't. The three of us disposed of the bottle in maybe 20 minutes, doing rounds of shots accompanied by the traditional toast of Gun-bae (which more or less just means Cheers). What made this easy is that soju is only about 20 percent alcohol, or 40 proof, compared to 80 proof and higher for most whiskeys, gins, and vodkas. It goes down smoothly, with no burning. And it's sweet, too, or sweet-ish. Although there is no single way to make soju, strict rice rationing for decades after the Korean War led to the use of other ingredients. The soju we drank was made from 60 percent rice, 20 percent sweet potatoes, and 20 percent tapioca, which is now a fairly conventional mix. The result was an almost fruity, creamy aftertaste. Very pleasant. It was not hard to imagine disposing of any number of shots over the course of a long, friendly repast.

Of course, adjectives like "fruity" and "creamy" might not be what the Mongols had in mind when they started churning out their battlefield rotgut. But if the modern version of soju is less likely to inspire you to boil your captives alive, that's okay. There are plenty of things about marauding hordes that are best left to history.