Soju may be known as Korea’s “National Drink”, but the beverage has become a favorite at gatherings all over the world. Everyone knows the iconic green bottle, as well as brands like Jinro, Chum Churum, and Andong. The popularity of the sweet-tasting, yet powerful alcoholic drink has made it one of Korea’s largest exports. However, soju didn’t always have the look that it does - and it was actually stronger than it is today!
Soju originated in 14th century Goryeo, when Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan introduced the Levantine distilling technique from Arabia to the Korean Peninsula. Distilleries were later set up around the city of Gaegyeong (now known as Kaesong), as it was the capital of Goryeo at the time.
Later, the Yuan Dynasty - led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan - moved into the Korean Peninsula and established their supply base in Andong. This was the catalyst for the predecessor to modern soju, Andong soju, to come about during the Silla dynasty. Korean alchemists began trading with Arab tribes and further developed their distilling technique. Over time, Koreans began perfecting their own type of hard liquor by distilling soju from rice and other grains.
Interestingly, the term soju (literally translating to “burned liquor”) originally referred to a distilled beverage with a 35% ABV, or alcohol by volume. However, in 1965, lower ABVs became popularized due to the South Korea government’s prohibition of distilling soju from rice. Due to this prohibition, different types of soju made from sweet potatoes and tapioca were created to meet the demand for liquor.
Although this prohibition was lifted in 1999, these different types of soju are still produced today, leading to a multitude of soju flavors. These new flavors also tend to have lower alcohol content. Where previous soju used to be 35% ABV, it fell to 25% by 1973 and 23% by 1998. Today, the percentage of alcohol in soju can range from 15% to 53%.
Today, soju is a top choice of alcohol around the world. As of 2015, Jinro soju had been the largest selling spirit worldwide for over ten years. The popularization of fruit soju through Korean entertainment has led soju to become commonplace in countries such as the Philippines and the United States.
What’s your favorite flavor of soju? Let us know in the comments below!