Though soju is sometimes described as rice wine, it’s not the same as sake. Sake is fermented, like beer, and has an alcohol content of about 15 percent. Soju is a distilled liquor whose alcohol content averages 24 percent — hardly Bacardi 151, but potent nonetheless.
Koreans have been distilling alcohol from rice ever since the Chinese introduced them to the process in the 13th century. Over time, they’ve developed a vast spectrum of distilled and infused alcohols that range from dry and heady to sweetly fruity. Soju is simply the cheapest and most common — a small bottle that costs $10 in one of Oakland’s soju bars sells for a buck in South Korean supermarkets.
Soju made by the traditional method — letting a rice mash ferment and then distilling the alcohol from it — is now a premium product in Korea. The soju most people drink is made by blending some of these old-fashioned rice spirits with purer alcohol distilled from starches such as barley, sweet potatoes, and tapioca. No wonder this “diluted” soju, as the authorities call it, tastes like a cross between sake and plastic-jug vodka.
Americans seem to be catching on to soju long after most of Asia has. You may have never heard of the Jinro brand, but since 2001 it has been the top-selling spirit in the world. The reason it is making such inroads in California now is because the state recently agreed to treat it like sake. In 1998 state Senator Richard Polanco, acting on behalf of the Korean Restaurant Owners Association, successfully championed a bill that allows bars and restaurants with a beer and wine license to sell imported Korean soju. (In a pissy side note undoubtedly written into the bill by its Korean-American backers, the law allows for the Japanese version of soju, shochu, to be sold the same way — as long as it is labeled with the Korean name.)
According to a legislative analysis of the bill, soju is “nearly flavorless and is of limited distribution, and is typically served with meals or in cultural ceremonies in Korean communities.” Proponents argued that the cost of a full liquor license — $12,000 for a new one, as opposed to $300 for a new beer and wine license — kept owners of small Korean restaurants from being able to serve soju to their customers.
But now that the stuff is legit, distribution has grown beyond the Korean community. East Bay restaurants including Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant, Cato’s Ale House, Unicorn, and Elysium all offer standard cocktails made with soju rather than vodka. As with sake cocktails, the flavor of the soju disappears into whatever it’s mixed with. Unlike sake, though, soju retains its wallop. Sip one of Pearl’s sojuhitos and all you taste is lime, mint, and sugar, with none of the harshness of vodka or rum. Yet the drink contains a lot more alcohol. Need proof? Just stand up.