The sordid tale o soju
Soju: two syllables that conjure up a Dickensian best and worst of Korea. It is the world's best-selling liquor, and not just by a few bottles. According to the Millionaire's Club, the global drinks industryís rankings of best-selling spirits, soju giant Jinro ranked No. 1 in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available. Selling 61.38 million cases, it more than doubled the success of Smirnoff vodka, the second best-selling brand. The third-best-selling spirit is also a soju - Lotte's Chumchurum, with 23.9 million cases sold.
None of this is big news - everyone knows Koreans drink. But why soju? How much soju do Koreans drink? What differentiates one brand from another? And how does all this compute with the average non-Korean?
Different soju brands market different gimmicks, like a "bamboo charcoal agitation exchange method" (Jinro Chamisul) and "alkaline-reduced water, which uplifts the taste of delicacies" (Chumchurum). Those brands then go to war over whether these processes and ingredients mean anything, as the Wall Street Journal reported in April.
Most Koreans believe they can tell the difference between brands; or at least, they have their preferences. On lsan's Meat Street one hot holiday night, most soju drinkers Groove Korea interviewed said they knew what they were drinking and why.
Kim Eu-tum, 27, is in TV broadcasting and he drinks Chamisul Fresh. "The brands are similar," he says, "but this one is my first choice. I never drink the other ones." He drinks only soju because it is Korea's traditional drink. Sometimes he mixes it with beer, and he often downs six or seven bottles of it. "I drink it every day!" he says. "Most Koreans drink it every day!"
Park Huk-chan also drinks it every day. A 47-year-old street artist, he's been imbibing since his middle school days, and does not distinguish between brands. "I really like the taste," he says. "I drink far more soju than yangju (any Western liquor)." He never mixes it and prefers it with meat.
Kim Ga-young, a 27-year-old nurse, drinks Chumchurum and likes it because, "It's cheap and it's a fast drunk." She drinks it in beer or straight. "I drink it when I'm bored," she says. She can usually knock back two or three bottles of it and likes it with soup.
And there's no arguing its easy accessibility.
But for some (Koreans and non-Koreans alike), the first glass was the last glass, and the potential duration of one's honeymoon goes up from there: The first bottle is the last, or the first binge is the last, or the first month of binges is the last. Some like it; some like it a lot. And then there's Alexandra Petrini.
The mouthy, squirmy, 26-year-old West Virginian describes her relationship to soju: "Pure unadulterated love! Soju is worth all its trouble!"
On further reflection, she adds, "The body says it is wrong on so many levels, but the bottle is too attractive and the battle is usually a quick one."
Every bottle is like she's getting a plasma transplant - that's not soju she's imbibing, that's liquid ecstasy. Donít mess with Petrini's soju.
Of the opposite opinion is 39-year-old Buffalonian Dan Leonard. Twelve years ago, when he first came to Korea, he was thrilled at the idea of such a cheap, gluten-free booze. Leonard suffers from an intolerance to gluten, which means he cannot drink beer. Soju was a wonderful, cheap alternative - until it just started to hurt too much, both the day of and the day after. "Five parts gasoline, one part Satan's urine," he says. "You get what you pay for."
A GROWING MARKET OVERSEAS
Though the vast majority of soju is still drunk either by Koreans in Korea or Koreans abroad, a small niche appears to be growing among non-Koreans.
Derek Brown is the owner of Soju Girl in Canberra, Australia. He sells Jinro and Chumchurum and he says non-Koreans only drink it in cocktails, at least in his bar. Aloe vera juice and mango juice are his most popular mixes. "Sometimes they ask to try it straight, but it doesn't happen often," he says.
Though Brown has never been to Korea, he got the idea for a soju bar from working with Koreans. He owned another soju bar in Phuket, Thailand, before he returned to Australia.
For Australians, "it's new, it's interesting," Brown says. "It's not a regular thing. It's a chance to show non-Koreans, non-Asians there are new things out there."
A single bottle of soju in Australia can cost $20.
Hyun Wanner owns Soju Bar, a bar and Korean street food restaurant in Berlin. They only sell Jinro, but sales are good.
"In the restaurant, we sell a lot of soju bottles," Wanner says, "and soju has turned into a very popular drink among our German guests. They seem to understand that it just belongs with a Korean meal, and most of them even celebrate sharing a bottle and all the small rituals like serving it to each other, etc."
People often have their first taste of soju at Soju Bar. "The main feedback seems to be always the same: tastes like water, but then hits in and makes you drunk like (with the) heavy stuff. That is something people like a lot," Wanner says.
Wanner admits, though, that he doesn't know of anywhere else that serves soju in Germany. A bottle goes for 10 euros and a cocktail can cost between 6 and 7.
The owner of Tonight Soju Bar in San Francisco, who only goes by the name "In," serves a mostly Chinese clientele, but also serves "about" 20 percent Westerners. First reactions to soju are often similar: "With the cocktails, they think 'This is good,'" In says. "With the straight soju, 'It's not good.'"
HOW SOJU BRANDS STACK UP FOR NON-KOREANS IN KOREA
To find out what all the fuss was about, we gathered 15 foreigners, including Petrini and Leonard, into a friend's officetel, for the first and last meeting of the Barbarian Soju Appreciation Society. The goal was simple: to taste 16 different sojus from around Korea, and rate them. The categories were smell, sweetness, crispness, burn, aftertaste and overall taste. Each category was ranked 1 to 10, and later averaged. It took about two hours. Full results are overleaf.
The big winner was Jinro: Clearly its sales are deserved. Although Jinro Gold scored high for burn - generally not a positive - it scored the highest as well for overall taste, at 6.7 points.
Brazilian-Korean Sid Lee, 36, probably the most experienced soju drinker in the group, described Jinro Gold as "the only actual, real soju. All the others are watered down for the emasculated younger generations. Jinro Gold for life!"
Petrini described Jinro Gold as a "gem." "Drinking too much of it would lead me down a very dark and destructive path," she says the most potent soju in the group, the strongest smelling and one of the crispest. There were no complaints about it.
The other Jinro brands did well, too. Chamisul Fresh (Blue) was second place at 6.4 in overall taste, and Chamisul Classic (Red) was third at 6.3, which bodes well, since both are widely available. Other favorites included Jeju's Hallasan, which scored fourth at 6.2, and Yipseju (leaf soju), which was fifth at 6.1.
At the bottom end, the most reviled soju by far was Daejon's O2 Rin. In chemistry, O2 may stand for oxygen, but in the soju world, it stands for a nasty afterburn. It scored highest on sweetness at 6.5, highest on aftertaste, at 7.3, and lowest on overall taste, at 2.8.
Ontarian Cornelia Klimek, 25, with a year in Korea under her belt, said, "O2 has an aspartame taste, very sweet, bad initial taste, goes down okay, but lingers after dumped out." Lee described it as "like chemical sweetener - blech," and another Ontarian, Emily O'Grady, 24, described it simply as "nasty."
The only other one to score below 5 in overall taste was, surprisingly, Chumchurum Fresh (Blue), one of Korea's most popular brands. It scored second highest on aftertaste, at 5.8, and second worst on overall taste, at 3.5. Klimek dumped hers out, but James Wright, 27, of Alabama, thought it went down the easiest. Robert Denner, 25 of Shropshire, England, thought the aftertaste was a bit strong for a soju with so little alcohol in it (16 percent).
The other sojus fell somewhere between O2 and Jinro Gold. Different drinkers had markedly different opinions. Klimek felt the Moon soju created a deep lung burn, Good Day was alcoholic water and Yipseju was a slow pour and thicker.
Denner felt Yipseju was more refreshing than the others, that Cham Island was very good, and that Good Day had a very good taste because it wasn't very strong.
Leonard, on the other hand, was rather disrespectful of the whole process. By soju No. 8, he insisted it felt like work; by No. 9, "I'm looking forward to a blackout so I can forget what's been in my mouth." No. 13: "I feel an odd combination of being buzzed and hungover at the same time. Please make it stop." No. 15: "Tears come to my eyes as I anticipate another glass." No. 16, and the end: "I wonder how I ever drank this stuff in my early years in the ROK. Thank God it's over and I can go back to avoiding this foul spirit like the plague."
Soju is a drink for getting drunk, and lots of Koreans love to get drunk. Though they're not the biggest drinkers in the world (Moldova holds that title), they may be the fastest drinkers, and the least shy about showing off how drunk they are.
Koreans are, however, proven to be the biggest drinkers outside of Europe.
Studies have been done, reports have been written, and there are plenty of pet theories out there about why Koreans drink so much. Stress seems to be the biggest reason; the chance to let loose in a straight-laced Confucian society is another. The speed at which Koreans get drunk probably has to do with their insane working hours - there may only be a couple hours to drink between the work whistle and bedtime, so what's the point in pacing oneself?
So barring a massive sea-change in Korean work hours and Korean society, it appears that soju is here to stay. For those of us who are also in Korea to stay, it pays to get acquainted with it. Give a few a try, choose your favorite and embrace it. But remember - like Dickens' Paris and London - it's the best of times, but then you find, as we did the morning after BSAS, that soon it's the worst of times.