The Long and Savage Story of Soju


Words by David Volodzko

There are three things you should know about soju: your options, your manners, and your limit.

Soju (소주, literally “burnt liquor”) isn’t what you think it is. The history of the drink we have today might surprise you. To start, it’s worth noting that the favorite poison of one of the world’s strongest drinking cultures originally comes from a country where alcohol is now illegal: Iran. Soju’s past is like a Park Chan-wook film – fraught with violence.
Mongolian hordes swept through the Taklimakan Desert and across Persia, leaving horror and ash in their wake and returning home with something known as aragh-e sagi, or “dog sweat.” A kind of raisin brandy, its potency was no doubt enjoyed by Genghis Khan’s warriors, and, though the recipe was tweaked over time, “dog sweat” never lost its edge.
The arid plains beyond the Gobi are no place for a vineyard, but the Mongolians had an abundance of something else: horses. Thus fermented raisins gave way to fermented mare’s milk, though to this day Mongolians still call the stiff brew “airag,” reflecting its distant origins. It was from this that Korea’s national drink evolved. In fact, before it was “soju” people knew it as “arakju” (아락주), and you can still get fermented horse’s milk in Korea today (now under the name “mayuju,” or 마유주).
At first, soju wasn’t so different from Japanese sake. Rice was abundant in both areas and the distilled product was far tastier than other options, but then as now the process wasn’t cheap and it was therefore enjoyed mainly by the ruling elite or sold as an expensive medicine.
Its long-standing place in Korea’s consciousness as a kind of medicine, as well as the historical absence of certain religions that have been known to demonize drunkenness, might account for Korea’s open-minded attitude towards binge drinking, something many folks living here have praised. That, and its unbeatable price. Of course, “proper” soju distilled from rice, the stuff of connoisseurs, costs considerably more. The cheap stuff didn’t debut until the sixties.
This second stage of its evolution was also the result of bloodshed. With the economic trouble following the Korean War, Park Cheong-hee’s industrialization policy in 1965 (산업화) prompted the Third Republic to prohibit the use of rice in the production of alcohol. This resulted in the decision to switch to using sweet potatoes and tapioca instead. The incredibly powerful result is then diluted with water and flavored so as to taste less like kerosene.
In 1999, apparently the coast finally looked clear, because—hallelujah!—the ban on using rice was lifted. This was followed by the arrival of several old-style soju brands: i.e. distilled, not diluted. However, by then soju had already come to represent an efficient (that is, strong and cheap) means of getting drunk. While some of the classics still hang on and are worth hunting down a taste for lighter, fresher and sweeter soju has evolved. But whatever you fancy you can likely find it in your local grocery bottled in the same shade of green glass that Perrier uses to conjure up images of plush groves and mossy streams. Here’s to “dog sweat”—Wihayeo 위하여!

The Proper Way to Get Drunk

Now that you’ve chosen your bottle and ordered your anju (bar snacks), don’t forget your etiquette.
•    Never drink soju alone. It’s a social lubricant. To paraphrase a Korean proverb: “after one bottle you’re a drunken stranger, after two you’re a drunken guest, but after three you’re a fellow drunk.”
•    If it’s a Cheoeum Cheoreom (see next page), then give the bottle a good swirl before cracking the cap. The goal here is create a little tornado in the bottle that’s believed to soften the taste (whether this actually works is dubious to say the least—but hey, it’s fun).

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