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Bottle of Chamisul soju with a branded glass.
Bottle of Chamisul soju with a branded glass.
Most brands of soju are made in South Korea. It is traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley, but modern producers of soju use supplements or even replace rice with other starches, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, or tapioca.
Soju is clear and colorless. Its alcohol content varies from about 16.7%, to about 45% alcohol by volume (ABV) for traditional Andong soju, with 20% ABV being most common. However, by using freeze distillation, ABV can be increased to desired percentage. There are two different ways to produce soju; the classic way of distilling soju that uses the single distillation method and the modern way of diluted soju that uses the chain distillation method. Distilled soju usually has a higher ABV of 30~35% than diluted soju with ABV of 21~30%. As distilled soju tends to have a higher ABV, it has stronger smell than diluted soju. It is widely consumed in part because of its relatively low price in Korea. A typical 375mL bottle of soju costs the consumer 1,000 to 3,000 South Korean won in South Korea (roughly $1 to $3 Canadian dollars). In Canada, it costs substantially more – $5.50 ~ $9.25 (depends on brand)  as tariffs and excise taxes add onto its original cost price. Now soju is exported to 80 countries and is in the top market share of diluted alcohol market. Statistically, soju ranked #1 in world sale records of the diluted alcohol market in 2002.
Korea has a very strict culture of respect and etiquette. When receiving a glass from an elder, one must hold the glass with two hands (left palm on the bottom & hold the glass with right hand) and bow the head slightly. When it is your turn to drink, turn away from the elder and cover your mouth and glass with hands. 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. There are a few rules unique to Soju: never pour your own, and don't refill your glass until it's empty.
Soju was first distilled around the 13th century, during the Mongol invasions of Korea. The Mongols had acquired the technique of distilling Arak from the during their invasion of Central Asia and the Middle East around 1256, it was subsequently introduced to Koreans and distilleries were set up around the city of Kaesong. Indeed, in the area surrounding Kaesong, soju is known as arak-ju (hangul: 아락주).
From 1965 until 1999, in order to alleviate rice shortages, the Korean government prohibited the traditional distillation of soju from rice. Instead, highly distilled ethanol from sweet potatoes and tapioca was mixed with water, flavoring, and sweetener to create soju. Although the prohibition has been lifted, cheap soju continues to be made this way. The Korean government regulates the alcohol content of diluted soju to less than 35%, but alcohol levels have continued to fall in order to reduce production costs. The lower alcohol concentration also makes the drink milder to consume, which may broaden its appeal.
Liquors in Canada are controlled by government. In Ontario, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario sells soju but not all stores have it. Only big stores have foreign liquor like soju. They sell three different kinds of soju; Chamisul Fresh Soju by Jinro, Charm Soju by Kum Bok Ju Co, and Chum Churum Cool Soju by lotte. In addition, not all LCBO establishments have soju, but almost all Korean LLBO restaurants have them. Recently, local Canadian soju distilleries who produce soju in the traditional method using local ingredients (such as barley grown in Canada) have sprung up and are starting to distribute throughout Canada. There could be Korean restaurants making their own diluted soju with their own recipe.
The liquor licensing laws in the states of California and New York specifically exempt the sale of soju from regulation relating to the sale of other distilled spirits, allowing businesses with a beer/wine license to sell it without requiring the more expensive license required for other distilled spirits. The only stipulation is that the soju must be clearly labeled as such and contain less than 25% alcohol. This has led to the appearance in the United States of many soju-based equivalents of traditional Western mixed drinks normally based on vodka or similar spirits, such as the soju martini and the soju cosmopolitan. Another consequence is that the manufacturers of similar distilled spirits from other parts of Asia, such as Japanese shōchū, have begun to relabel their products as soju for sale in those regions.
Jinro is the largest manufacturer of soju. (76 million cases sold in 2008). The most popular variety of soju is currently Chamisul (참 이슬 - literally meaning "real dew"), a quadruple-filtered soju produced by Jinro, but recently Chum-Churum (처음처럼 - "like the first time") of Lotte BG (롯데) and JoeunDay(좋은데이 - means "GoodDay") of Muhak(무학) are raising its market share. However, the most popular brands vary by region. In Busan, C1 Soju (시원 소주) is the local and most popular brand. Ipsaeju (잎새주 - "leaf alcohol"), is popular in the Jeollanam-do region. The Daegu Metropolitan Area has its own soju manufacturer, Kumbokju with the popular brand Cham (참). Further north in the same province, Andong Soju is one of Korea's few remaining traditionally distilled brands of soju. On the Special Self-Governing Province of Jeju-do, Hallasan Soju is the most common brand, being named after the island's main mountain Mt. Halla. In Gyeongsangnam-do and Ulsan, the most popular is Joeunday(GoodDay) Soju (hangul: 좋은데이), produced by Muhak in Changwon. However, as soon as one crosses the border from Ulsan north to Gyeongju in Gyeongsangbuk-do, it is almost impossible to buy White Soju and instead the most popular is Chamisul and Cham.
Although beer, whiskey, and wine have been gaining popularity in recent years, soju remains one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Korea because of its ready availability and relatively low price. More than 3 billion bottles were consumed in South Korea in 2004. In 2006, it was estimated that the average adult Korean (older than 20) had consumed 90 bottles of soju during that year.
While soju is traditionally consumed straight, a few cocktails and mixed drinks use soju as a base spirit. Beer and soju can be mixed to create somaek (소맥), a portmanteau of the words soju and maekju (맥주 beer). Flavored soju is also available. It is also popular to blend fruits with soju and to drink it in "slushy" form. Another very popular flavored soju is yogurt soju (요구르트 소주), which is a combination of soju, yogurt, and lemon lime soda.
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