The best-selling spirit brand in the world isn't a type of whiskey, vodka or rum—it's soju, a Korean alcoholic beverage that's taken the world by storm.

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Even if you fancy yourself a true connoisseur of liquors, you may be surprised to learn that based on the sales, the most popular spirit in the world isn't vodka, whisky or rum but soju, a traditional Korean drink. (The soju brand Jinro is the best-selling spirit in the world, according to Spirits Business.)

Though many Westerners once tended to dismiss soju as a low-alcohol "Korean vodka" you might quaff at a karaoke bar, the liquor is becoming increasingly visible in the West, and you may find yourself downing a shot or two at a fancy bar sooner than you think.

"Soju's on a similar trajectory as mezcal," said Kyungmoon Kim, former head of wine and beverage at the Michelin-starred Jungsik restaurant in New York, and founder of KSM Imports, which specializes in artisanal liquors from South Korea. "Ten or 15 years ago, nobody thought of mezcal except as a cheap bottle with a little worm inside that gave you a headache. Now there are so many different mezcals with different price points, depending on where the mezcal came from, up to $200 a bottle, and people are starting to understand the flavor profile and story behind each product. Soju right now everyone knows as flavorless, green-bottle soju, so we're trying to change people's perceptions to see that soju is a beverage with a lot of flavor and complexity."

A bottle and glass of Soju with a sliced lemon
Credit: Pexels / Roi Mojado

What is soju?

Soju is an alcoholic beverage distilled from various starchy crops, originally and primarily still produced on the Korean peninsula. The alcohol content can range anywhere from around 15% to over 50%, and the quality can vary greatly.

It got its start in the 13th century, when invading Mongols brought with them distillation techniques they themselves had learned in the Middle East and similar to those still used today to make single-malt scotch or cognac. "Soju" in fact means "burnt liquor," in reference to how it's made. At this point, soju was made only from rice wine, and averaged about 40% to 50% alcohol. Eventually, each town of a reasonable size had its own local soju distiller; those distillers sold to their neighbors and had a recipe that was handed down from generation to generation.

In 1965, amid shortages of the staple of the Korean diet, the South Korean government passed a law that forbade rice in the making of soju, so soju makers switched to substitutes like barley, sweet potatoes, wheat and tapioca. To increase profits, they began diluting soju, too, a trend that continues to this day, as well as adding sweeteners and other flavors to make their product more palatable. Those changes also had unintended consequences in shaking up the South Korean alcohol industry and have been blamed for giving rise to a heavy drinking culture in the country.

"It forced a lot of small brewers to close down, and the big conglomerates who could use barley or sweet potato or even imported tapioca to keep the costs down were the only ones to survive," Kim said. "Those products made sense at a time when people barely made enough money to bring food to the table and needed to get through the day, and cheap soju still brings nostalgic memories for our fathers' and grandfathers' generations, but the tradition of distilled rice wine pretty much disappeared."

In 1999, the government lifted the rice ban, but cheap soju only continued to grow in popularity both inside and outside of South Korea. Still, artisanal soju makers have started to gain a following by resurrecting the age-old methods and putting out higher-alcohol soju made from rice.

Soju vs. Sake

Though it's tempting to compare Korea's most famous alcoholic beverage to Japan's most famous alcoholic beverage, sake, that's a bit of an apples-to-oranges situation. Sake is a rice wine (though it's actually brewed like beer), while soju is a distilled beverage. Koreans have their own rice wine, makgeolli, which is an analog to Japanese sake, while Japan has shochu, which is similar to soju. ("Soju" and "shochu" are even written with the same Chinese characters.)

How do you drink soju?

Soju is mostly drunk as a shot, downed in a single gulp. The host will serve the eldest guest first, then everyone else. Instead of "cheers," say "geonbae," which literally means "dry the glass" and is a sign of respect to the pourer. Always finish what's in your glass before accepting another pour, and no one should ever fill their glass themselves. Serve and receive pours of soju with both hands—to do otherwise is disrespectful.

There's a misconception floating around that you have to turn your head to the side and look away from the pourer when you drink, but that's probably based on a foreigner misreading the fact that eye contact is not common practice in Korean culture—it's seen as aggressive in a society where polite deference is the default.

Soju cocktails

Popular soju-based drinks include what's sometimes referred to as a "yogurt soju cocktail," which isn't made with actual yogurt but with Yakult, a sweet, milky Japanese probiotic drink that comes in small plastic bottles. The recipe's as simple as they get: Mix one bottle of Yakult with one bottle of soju (any inexpensive, "green bottle" soju will do). Not surprisingly, it's a cocktail associated with younger drinkers. More broadly popular is somaek, a portmanteau of "soju" and "maekju," Korean for "beer." It's basically a boilermaker—drop a shot of soju in a glass of beer and gulp it down.

Soju is an easy substitute for vodka in most recipes. Kim recommends soju in any of the martini family of cocktails, while barley soju, with its spicier grain finish, works well in place of whiskey. If you can find it, a pine-based soju is an excellent stand-in for gin. Look for higher-quality artisanal soju, if possible, as you'll find it much more complex and intriguing.

Pairing soju with food isn't a big thing in Korea, as the typical meal doesn't involve courses but everything on the table at once in a communal setting, so you can't approach it like you would a wine pairing, where the food and wine get equal billing.

"It can give a supporting complement to the food rather than, like wine, actualy making the food more complex," Kim said. "The traditional rice-based soju goes well with beef dishes, and there's barley soju that works nicely with pork belly."

What soju should I buy?

Soju typically lives in the Asian section of your local liquor store, alongside Japanese sake and shochu. It's also possible to order soju online in most states. Most of what you'll find in the States will be the cheaper, mass-market stuff, but it's worth exploring your better-connected stores for the occasional standouts that have made it across the Pacific.

The company Jinro dominates the soju market, accounting for half of South Korea's soju sales. It's reintroduced old-style packaging, specifically a sky-blue bottle with the label "Jinro Is Back," which contains a clean, neutral soju that is a pleasant, refreshing example of what a modern soju can be.

Seoul Night, by The Han, is made from the ripened Asian golden plum and cold-filtered and has a floral aroma with dry aftertaste. "Seoul Night will take your soju game to the next level, and you will never look back," Kim said.

Damsoul pine soju, by Solsonju, is made from an old family recipe with rice, pine needles and spruce tea. Kim described it as "exceptionally nuanced, yet offers a refreshing finish with a hint of juniper and sansho pepper spice."

Considered the most exclusive soju available today, Samhae soju was once served only to Korean aristocracy, and today boasts the Intangible Cultural Heritage stamp from the government. "It is one of the greatest examples of true soju," Kim said.