In the popular K-drama Business Proposal, a group of coworkers watch in awe as their fellow colleague, actor Lim Ki-Hong, stands at the end of a table and proceeds to flamboyantly pour six glasses of his own innovation: the Dynamite shot. Hong proceeds in a near-dance as he expertly bursts open bottles of Jinro soju and beer and sprays them like a firework display before pouring. He tops his performance off by sticking a sparkler in a beer, parading it while busting some K-pop boy band moves and finishing his pours.
Hong’s showmanship may be a dramatization, but the iconic scene isn’t too far off in exemplifying the customs of Korea’s lively drinking culture. It’s extremely common for corporate gatherings to take place around a few (or many) bottles of soju. Drinking is considered a communal experience, and social skills, like dazzling a crowd with your bartending abilities, are applauded.
Soju is not only Korea’s favorite spirit but also the number one liquor sold worldwide. According to The Spirits Business magazine, Jinro soju is expected to be the first liquor brand to sell more than one hundred million cases in a year. Darrell Loo, the bar manager of Waldo Thai, credits soju’s popularity to its low alcohol by volume, which averages around twenty to thirty percent.
“In bigger cities, soju has become more mainstream because if you have a wine and beer liquor license, for example, in New York, you can still sell soju, so you can also use soju to make cocktails,” Loo says.
Consumers are also becoming increasingly more interested in low ABV spirits as an alternative to liquors with higher alcohol percentages. Often referred to as Korean vodka (partially due to its clear and colorless liquid), soju takes on a much lighter and smoother flavor and an overall refreshing quality. The mouthfeel is almost delicate. This also makes it versatile for cocktails.
Traditionally, soju is distilled from rice, but it can also be made from a variety of grains and starches. The green-tinted bottle that has long been associated with the spirit is indicative of an accessible and relatively cheap genre that is most likely made from sweet potato, tapioca or barley. Flavors include green apple, lychee or soju made from rice. This type of soju is not necessarily better quality, but some folks are looking to change that.
“I love drinking the popular green bottle,” says Keeyoung Kim, owner of Sura Eats and Chingu. “But once I discovered the flavor of a product distilled solely from rice, it changed my view of soju completely. The reason for distilling from a variety of grains is deeply rooted not only in soju history but in Korean history. It’s a completely different product, from higher ABV content to the distinct flavor profiles. The green bottles distilled from different grains used today were a result of bans, rice shortages and various cost-saving methods occurring throughout Korean history. You have to respect and honor that process.”
As an example, in 1965, due to a rice shortage, South Korea’s government banned using rice to make soju, so distillers turned to other grains and starches. It wasn’t until 1999 that the ban was lifted.
Kim has been working on a rice-based soju recipe with Mean Mule Distilling Co.’s master distiller, Tyler Gloe.
“The recipe is finalized, maybe a few tweaks, but no set date for initial production and launch yet,” Kim says.<
Soju is served in shot glasses and meant to be drunk straight. The drinker can choose to sip it or throw it back. The etiquette within Korea’s drinking culture is meant to show respect. You don’t have to abide by these rules at Waldo Thai or Chingu (Loo created the cocktail menus for both) but if you feel inclined to show off your mixologist skills to your fellow table members, give it all you got.
1. Never pour your own drink.
2. The eldest will pour the first round. Once they’re finished serving, someone will pour theirs.
3. Use two hands on the bottle when you serve the drink and two hands on your glass as you receive one.
4. Drink your soju by turning your head to the side and avoiding eye contact, especially in the presence of your elders.
5. No one drinks alone. Drinking is a social act that creates camaraderie in Korea. Never turn down a drink. If someone pours you one, you should pour them one.
6. “If [a glass] is empty, it should be filled,” Loo says. “If you don’t want [your glass] to be filled, you don’t finish it.”