“This one is for ladies,” the bartender at 61 Café told me recently, as he filled a tiny glass halfway with a clear, thick substance. I took a sip. It was as syrup-y as it looked. “Wow,” I said. “So, this is also soju? It tastes so different!” He nodded vaguely. “Oh, no. Not really. It can be called soju, but this,” he said, pushing another little bottle towards me, “is the only one that’s really soju.” This went on for some 40 minutes, at the end of which I seriously needed a drink, and I didn’t care what it was called—officially or unofficially.
Depending on your source, soju either originated in China, Korea, or Japan a very long time ago—evidence dates as far back as 1300. It is often erroneously grouped with sake because one of its common ingredients is rice. But soju—and its Japanese version, shochu—is distilled, not brewed and can’t be defined by its ingredients, because they vary widely. Most soju is made from a blend of grains like rice, buckwheat, and barley, but sweet potato is another common ingredient. Some other general statements that can be safely made about soju are: it is inexpensive, it usually contains about 24 percent alcohol (48 proof) and is clear, dry, and though it can be quite smooth, tastes strongly of, well, alcohol. Upscale soju makers now distill it from single ingredients, and connoisseurs obsess over their specific flavors.
It is often described as Korean or Japanese vodka, which, in terms of taste and process, is probably the most accurate comparison. Soju was once the hooch of Asia—a cheap way for workers to get wasted after a long, hard day. But in recent years it has become hip in Korea and Japan, and even in New York, where it’s popping up in trendy bars and fusion restaurants, often mixed into sweet, colorful cocktails, like Ruby Foo’s “The Silk Heaven,” which is more refreshing and less sugary than its pinkness would suggest. It is made with Finlandia mango vodka, soju, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and hibiscus strawberry tea. Director of Cocktail Development Eben Klemm likes soju for its “dry, dusty, quality,” which he says makes for cocktails that appeal to people who normally shy away from the specialty list, assuming the creations will be too saccharine.
Back at Café 61, my new friend the bartender, satisfied that he had cleared up all the confusion about what soju is, moved on to inform me of how to drink it. This was a lot simpler: Koreans drink soju chilled, straight—no ice. Mixing it in fruity cocktails is more popular in Japan, where a cheap, carbonated drink called chu-hai has long been widely available in single-serving cans. It is also mixed with Oolong tea, drunk on the rocks and, in the winter, mixed with hot water and salty plum paste.
If you really want to impress your friends, smack the bottom of the bottle against your elbow a couple of times before opening it. The bartender says this “mixes it up,” which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it looks pretty cool.