Before I headed to Korea, I did quite a bit of research. Admittedly, most of my research had to do with food. And with food comes alcohol.
In my defense, Korea’s drinking culture is fascinating.
For instance, it’s considered rude to decline a drink. You’re not supposed to pour for yourself. You hold your glass with both hands when receiving, and place your hand under your right elbow when pouring. You turn away from the eldest when he or she takes their shot.
I couldn’t wait to experience all of it for myself.
My first week here, roaming the streets of my neighborhood, I noticed a bar on every block. People were drinking outside convenience stores. Empty green bottles littered the tables in the restaurants. Businessmen were puking in alleys.
“This is insane,” I said to my co-teacher, who was showing me around.
“What can I say,” he replied. “These people love their soju.”
Soju: A distilled beverage native to Korea, often compared to a weaker, slightly sweeter vodka. It was originally made from rice, but most brands now supplement or replace the rice with other starches such as wheat, barley, sweet potato or tapioca. The first bottle was supposedly distilled in the 1300’s.
To say Koreans love this stuff is a huge understatement. According to the world’s leading soju manufacturer, Jinro, Koreans consume nearly one billion bottles of Jinro Soju every month. Wikipedia reports that the average Korean adult (older than 20) consumes 90 bottles a year.
So, what’s so good about this stuff? For one, it’s cheap. A 300mL bottle will set you back a mere 1,000-2,000 won (between 85 cents and $1.70). Second, it’s strong. Drink a bottle or two to yourself, and you might have trouble recalling the night’s events.
But, the real question: Does it taste good? Well, that depends on who you ask. Korean men tend to love it. Korean women seem to prefer the country’s second favorite spirit, makgeolli (Korean rice wine). Foreigners drink it cause it’s a cheap way to get hammered.
I think it tastes like rubbing alcohol.
Still, the shelves at markets are stocked with soju. Convenient stores have refrigerated sections dedicated to keeping it at just the right temperature. Servers at restaurants assume you’re going to order it with dinner.
“You know, maybe we’re just not drinking the right brand,” I said to my roommate Chris. “Maybe they taste different.” I suggested we have a soju taste test.
The following weekend, we invited some friends over to help decide on the best-tasting soju. The contenders: Chum Churum’s Cool (16%) Jinro’s Fresh (19.5%), Jinro’s Original (20.1%), and a bottle of North Korean soju (23%) Chris got from the DMZ.
We went one by one, shot by shot, blindfolded. And we took notes in case we blacked out.
Here are the results, transcribed from the pieces of crumpled paper I found strewn about the kitchen floor: Cool seemed to be the overall favorite, described as going down smooth with no aftertaste. Despite the pungent rubbing alcohol scent, the North Korean bottle came in second, for its pleasant, mild grape flavor. Fresh took third, with Original close behind. Both were described as having a harsh scent and taste, but Fresh got higher marks for its slight sweetness.
My conclusion: I’ll never like soju as much as Koreans do. I doubt I’ll ever order it when I return to the states. And I dream of the day when I can order a glass of good wine with my meal instead of a bottle of rice whisky. But until that day comes, I’ll do as the Koreans do.
Next time I’ll just make sure it’s with Chum Churum’s Cool.