John Pulos

Yobo Soju

Soon to hit the shelves at Finger Lakes Distilling will be Yobo Soju .  If you were reading this in Korea or Japan – no explanation would be needed.  Soju is Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage (a distilled beverage containing ethanol and water – some calling it “Korean Vodka”).  Most brands of soju are made in South Korea and traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley.  Many modern Korean producers replace the rice with other starches (potatoes, sweet potatoes, or tapioca).  It is smooth and clean in taste, which makes it easy to drink in combination with various Korean dishes.  (Its equivalent in Japan would be Shochu), which is also made with similar ingredients. Yobo Soju is made with grapes – in the tradition of our Vintner’s Vodka.  Soju, in Korean, literally means “burned or distilled liquor.”   It is interesting that in the languages where vodka supposedly originated (Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Finnish, and Russian) that vodka also is translated as “to burn.”

Although little information is available about the origins of vodka, it was probably first produced in the 8th or 9th centuries, Soju can be traced to the 13th Century.   Historians believe that the Koreans may have learned the method of soju distillation from the Mongols during the Mongolian War. The Mongols, in turn, had acquired their knowledge of how to make soju from the Persians who called their anise-flavored distilled beverage Arak.  The Mongolian troops were stationed in the South Korean province of Andong where the first soju was created.  Today, soju is still produced in Andong, which is considered the strongest of all sojus.

Soju is usually clear and colorless – it is not often aged.  Its alcohol content (ABV) can range from 16.7% to 45% – although 45% is very high for a modern soju.  (Soju manufactured in Andong generally has an ABV of 45%.)  A twenty percent alcoholic content is the most common for soju. Yobo Soju has an ABV of 23% or 46 proof.  The lower alcohol content makes the drink much milder to consume and broadens its appeal.  The classic way to produce soju is by using the single distillation method.  Most distilleries in Korea now use a chain distillation.  Finger Lakes Distilling single distills the fermented grapes to produce its new Soju.

South Korea’s Jinro company is the largest manufacturer of soju.  The Jinro brand is usually sold at 20% ABV.   Drinks magazine annually list Jinro’s soju as the top selling spirit in the world with over 9 million bottles a day (over 3 billion bottles annually) consumed in Korea alone.  Smirnoff, Jack Daniel’s and Bacardi do not come close to the Korean giant.   Jinro now sells over 80 million cases a year.   This translates to the average adult consuming over two and a half gallons of soju annually. Soju is often an integral part of Korean social gatherings.  The United States currently makes up only 5% of the Jinro market.  

Soju tends to be slightly sweet with round notes of tropical fruit, but for the most part, is tasteless.  Although best when consumed chilled in small glasses, soju cocktails are now appearing up and down the West Coast and New York.    Soju bars combine the “soft spirit” with citrus syrup and tonic (Korean highball), infuse it with blueberry and basil, or mix it as a mojito or margarita.   There are apple-soju aperitifs, lychee-soju slushies, or soju with any fruit juice that you can think of.  The mixability of the category is one of its many appeals.

In Korea, there is a lot of etiquette surrounding the serving and consumption of Soju.  If you are pouring a glass for others, hold the bottle with your right hand, and support your right arm with your left hand by touching its elbow.  If that seems like too much tradition, then follow these simple rules for soju:  “Never pour your own, and do not refill your glass until it is empty.”  In the United States, soju consumption will likely evolve into a less formal process.  No matter how you drink it, soju is here to stay.  Try some our handcrafted Yobo Soju today.