Cocktail of the Month: Soju

The Winter Olympics are back, this year coming from South Korea, the country that gave the world kimchi, “Gangnam Style,” K-pop and the Samsung Galaxy.

Team USA is sending 242 athletes to PyeongChang, the largest roster any nation has ever sent to the Olympic Games. Veterans like snowboarder Shaun White and skier Lindsey Vonn will team up with promising newcomers such as snowboarder Chloe Kim and figure skater Nathan Chen, hoping to bring home the gold.

As for the host team, in a striking token of reconciliation, North and South Korean athletes will walk under a reunification flag at the opening ceremony and enter a joint women’s ice hockey team.

How the U.S. and Korean teams will fare is still up in air, but one thing is certain. If selling liquor were an Olympic sport, the Koreans would snag the gold medal in a win more convincing than Alex Ovechkin body checking a pee-wee league player.

The top-selling liquor brand in the world is Jinro, a brand of Korean soju. Jinro has regularly outsold U.S. global brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Captain Morgan and Smirnoff. And it’s not even a close margin. Online magazine Slate reported that, in 2013, Jinro sold 60 million cases of soju and Smirnoff sold about 25 million cases of vodka.

And sales keep growing, According to the Korean Times, Jinro was the number-one-selling spirit brand in 2016, with 73.9 million cases sold. It’s been in that spot for 17 years.

If you’re not familiar with it, soju is a rice liquor uniquely identifiable with Korea. The clear liquid has a smooth, crisp and slightly bitter flavor. While most soju ranges in the 20-to-25-percent range for alcohol content, its potency can vary from 10 percent up to 45 percent.

Fruit-flavored sojus appeal to younger drinkers and cocktails featuring soju mixed with fresh fruit juice are fashionable as well. Soju has been compared to vodka, but, according to Jinro, “the nose, flavor, feel and finish are considerably more complex, giving it unlimited potential for creating unique and exciting cocktails.”

In Korea, drinking is a social art and soju is serious business. It’s enjoyed in groups at business dinners, family celebrations and nightclubs. When people get together they often will join in for a bottle (or several) of soju.

Drinking soju — typically served in small shot-sized glasses — requires both etiquette and endurance. There are strict rules to be followed and it’s considered impolite to turn down a drink if it’s offered to you. If you are receiving a shot, hold your glass with two hands. The same rule applies if you are pouring. The most senior person generally pours the first round. However, it’s considered bad manners to pour your own.

You are expected to down at least the first glass in one shot. Most likely, the glass will be quickly refilled. An empty glass is considered a bad thing.

Soju is never meant to be drunk alone. This is where the perseverance comes in. If one of your companions wants to continue drinking, you are obliged to join him or her. Imbibing together is a show of solidarity.

If you’re looking to sample soju in D.C., the best place to go is one of the area’s noted Korean restaurants. Mandu, with outposts in Dupont Circle and Mount Vernon Triangle, offers four types of soju, as well as a soju bloody Mary and fruit cocktails. Bar manager Phil Anova reports that the favored brand is Charm, which he describes as “very smooth with small citrus notes.” Mandu also does seasonal infusions; on deck now is one with kiwi, ginger and sesame leaf.

In Adams Morgan, the hip eatery Bul serves six types of soju. GM Sophie Shin says the top seller is Chumchurum, which means “like the first time” in Korean. The most popular cocktail is a showstopping watermelon soju — a combination of soju, Sprite and fresh watermelon — served in a personal-sized carved-out fruit, topped with scooped watermelon balls.

A more demure choice at Bul is the lemon soju made with homemade lemonade, a refreshing tipple balanced with a little pulp. If you wish to cheer on your favorite athlete, Shin recommends a soju and beer bomb shot. She explains: “Fill up a glass with beer about two-thirds full, then drop a shot glass of soju into the beer glass. And then, bottoms up!”

The proper expression for a toast in Korean is “geonbae,” which literally means “empty glass.” Let’s go Team USA!

Lemon Soju

Courtesy Bul Restaurant


1/3 part homemade lemonade

2/3 part soju

Stir together and garnish with a lemon slice.



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