Despite being one of the world’s most popular spirits and claiming three of the globe’s best-selling liquor brands, soju hasn’t made much of a dent in the U.S. In fact, most Americans aren’t even aware of the distilled alcohol. Chicago-based market research firm Datassential reported in early 2018 that just 1 percent of American restaurants have soju on their menus, and fewer than a fifth of consumers are aware of the spirit. The numbers are even smaller for makgeolli, a milky-white rice wine from Korea similar to sake.
But some restaurants are trying to reverse that gap in consumer knowledge by featuring the South Korean national alcoholic beverage by itself and in cocktails that also include popular Korean fruit, juices, and vegetables.
Getting to know soju
“Soju is a great spirit, very approachable and pretty easy to explain,” says Rachel Miller, bar manager at Community Tavern, an American bistro in Chicago. “We will use it as a base, as a mollifying ingredient in some cocktails, and will do it infused.”
The clear, neutral-tasting spirit is similar to vodka but with less alcohol, so it doesn’t have that burn at the end, says Philip Anova, beverage director at Washington, D.C.’s Mandu, which features homestyle Korean fare. “It’s great for people who don’t drink boozy cocktails.”
The low alcohol level also allows the flavor of the fermented ingredient—traditionally rice but it can be wheat or sweet potatoes—and other elements in a cocktail to shine. Until the mid-20th century, soju had been largely 35 percent alcohol by volume, but then less expensive, diluted versions gained popularity. Most varieties today are around 20 percent ABV, and they’re part of a growing trend, especially among younger adults who favor lower-alcohol spirits and cocktails.
In terms of makers of the spirit, the top-selling global brand of soju is Jinro soju, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, and the brand’s top-selling line is Chamisul—soju filtered with charcoal made from Korean bamboo. Other soju brands Chum Churum and GoodDay are seventh and tenth, respectively.
Serve it straight, with beer, or in a cocktail
Some protocols for drinking soju in Korea—for instance, having someone else pour soju from the bottle to the drinker’s glass—have carried on at some U.S. restaurants. At Mandu, a variety of sojus, including those made with rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, plus a house-infused candied yam version,are poured into small shot glasses, so everyone toasts and drinks at the same time.
A popular Korean cocktail is somaek, the term for a combination of soju and beer. The drink is prepared by guests at a ratio of about 4 portions of beer to one of soju, says Suhum Jang, general manager of Hortus, an Asian fusion restaurant in New York City. “It gives lots of flavor and boldness to these two types of liquor.”
The combination of soju and beer is part of the monthly fixed-priced dinners at Morris Ramen in Madison, Wisconsin, too, but the bartenders like playing with the spirit in cocktails as well. The Sweater Weather cocktail combines American-made West 32 soju, Korean pear spiced with anise, cinnamon, and cloves, BroVo Pretty Floral Vermouth, and lemon for a comforting sip. “It’s a nice, clean drink,” says Becka Simms, bar manager, who rotates soju cocktails seasonally.
Hortus features a variety of soju brands on the menu, and sometimes two are mixed in one cocktail, Jang says. The ‘H’ cocktail, for instance, employs Jinro’s Chamisul and Hwayo brand soju, along with orange segments and grapefruit tonic. Likewise, the 5th ave cocktail combines Hwayo 23 and Jinro 24, plus tonic, mint, and lime. And Hortus is also serving soju at brunch in cocktails like the Sunrise with soju, Grand Marnier, and blood orange, and the negroni-like Sojuroni that has soju, Campari, yuzu, and mint.
Community Tavern has made soju approachable to its American audience with the very popular Soju Think You Can Dance, which has apple-infused West 32 soju along with lemon juice, sugar, and sparkling rosé—similar to a French 75.
And Mandu is also making the foreign spirit more approachable with brunch favorites like its Soju Bloody Mary, which combines Clamato tomato juice, fresh horseradish, Sriracha, and spiced cucumber, and its Sojutinis, which consist of chilled soju mixed with Korean fruit juices like grape and pear. “There are a lot of juices kids have in Korea, and putting that with soju makes a sweet and really easy cocktail,” Anova says.
Mandu also plays with makgeolli. The sake-like spirit is key to the homophone-influenced Mama Makko-Lee, a cocktail that combines Grand Marnier, lychee syrup, coconut almond milk, and a dash of cinnamon.