Shochu vs. Soju!

shochu v soju

More often than not when I introduce Americans to, they almost invariably think I said soju,and unless they’re indiscriminate drinkers they’re not that interested in trying “soju” again. Like many Americans, I’d heard of Korean soju long before I’d heard of Japanese shochu. I suppose this is because in the U.S. soju is often available in Korean restaurants while shochu is rarely available in Japanese restaurants. The names are very similar, but the production processes are quite a bit different. Even in Mandarin the spirit is called shao-jyo, yet another iteration of the same word.

This is thanks to a clever marketing ploy by Korean importers (or restauranteurs?) – I am not exactly sure of the genesis – but someone at some time decided to lobby to get soju considered equivalent to beer and wine and sake, which requires a different level of liquor license than a full hard liquor license. California law stipulates that the word “soju” must appear somewhere on the bottle regardless of nation of origin and the alcohol content must be less than 25%. Since California is the largest US market for Japanese shochu,  you end up with a large number of shochus with “soju” printed on the label, often as a single unadorned word absent any explanation.

For example in the photo above, Aka Kirishima (center), a seasonal red potato shochu from Miyazaki, prominently prints SOJU just below the English spelling of the brand. Kagura no Mai (right), a buckwheat shochu, takes a less enthusiastic approach, labeling “shochu/soju” just beneath the bottle size on the left bottom corner of the label. This is almost a white flag waving defeat … a shoulder shrug suggesting “call it what you want, we give up”.

I’d tried Korean soju once or twice long before I found shochu and didn’t really enjoy it. It seemed almost medicinal in its taste and finish. There was nothing interesting about the nose. It was essentially as I described Juhyo Special Suntory. Not something I’d like to drink regularly, if at all. Only upon discovering shochu did I develop a taste for, and appreciation of, the spirit. Since that time I’ve persisted in my opinion of the Korean alternative.

Further research has shown that these Korean sojus are multiply distilled much like vodka, attempting to remove all fo the flavor of the original grains. The producers then add back in additives and flavorings to make it more appealing. Their target is high sales volume and they succeed. Jinroo is now the largest spirits brand in the world, and their product is sold in liter plastic jugs at home and abroad. There are artisinal Korean sojus, but they are the exception rather than the rule, at least among products available overseas. In fact, I’ve yet to discover a small batch traditional Korean soju for sale in the US.

The Japanese shochu industry on the other hand has taken a quality over quantity approach to exports. Within Japan “korui shochu” (multiply distilled mass produced products) make up a very large share of the domestic shochu market. While honkaku shochus (artisinal, singly distilled, “authentic” shochus) make up virtually all of the shochu export market. Of the 100 to 130 shochu brands available in the US, less than 5% are korui shochu.

So these two industries have gone in very different directions and to very different effect. Korean soju has become the highest volume class of spirits in the world, but is now equated with cheap “rotgut” liquor. “A hangover in a little green bottle” is a common phrase among my friends. Japanese shochu on the other hand is quickly becoming synonymous with quality artisinal spirits with complex character and unique flavor profiles.

I look forward to the day when artisinal Korean soju makes it to our shores. In the meantime, I’ll stick with beer when I go out for Korean BBQ.



8 Responses to “Shochu vs. Soju!”
  1. Tom says:

    I am familiar with both Japanese shochu and Korean soju and last year while visiting Seoul, Korea I had the pleasure of trying Andong soju. I did not think that it was bad, particularly compared to typical mass produced sojus.

    From what I understand there are two producers of Andong soju in Korea. They are both made in the traditional manner, like Honkaku shochu, in pot stills. Unfortunately, I am not sure which manufacturer’s I tried (nor do I know which of the two makes the Ilpoom product) but I did not think that it was bad and it certainly had more taste and character than one’s normal soju.

    Here is a website of one of the Andong soju producers: They have an English page and at looking at the Manufacturing Process I see no mention of the equivalent of koji being used during the fermentation process. In fact, they don’t really mention what is used for the starch to sugar conversion so I presume that it has something to do with the malted barley that they mentioned in the malted barley section. They also don’t mention yeast for the sugar to alcohol conversion. They just state that they throw the malted barley, steam rice and water together into a pot and allow it to ferment for the proper period. But, overall, it provides a good overview of how Andong soju is hand crafted.

    You’ll have to try both Andong sojus at some point to see whether one is better than the other.

    Keep up the review.


  2. Stephen says:

    Tom, Thanks very much for the information. Glad to know some artisinal soju is being produced. Will check out the site you linked to.


  3. west says:

    Interesting article. Too bad it isn’t as informed as it’s presentation. You really don’t know anything about Korean or Japanese palate. If you understood how korean and japanese foods were put together, you’d understand how the soju and shochu have their places. From your use of “artisan” it appears that you haven’t tried the more exquisite sojus. That’s quite alright… stick to the artisan soju… whatever that means.

    • Stephen says:

      I’m intimately familiar with the Japanese palate. I am less familiar, though still conversant in the Korean palate. South Korea destroyed their soju industry during the rice famine so that they could preserve the grains for human consumption rather than alcohol production. That’s a rational choice, obviously, but it put the small private producers out of business overnight and in their wake came large national produces such as Jinro (now the single largest spirits producer in the world). These low quality multiple distilled grain alcohols are cheap and potent and mass produced on a scale that traditional Japanese shochu cannot hope to achieve using traditional methods.

      But you’re right, both have their place, just as Budweiser and craft beers both have their place. My point, which remains, is that we should not conflate the two despite the similar sounding names. Korean soju and Japanese shochu, at least the honkaku varieties most prevalent in the US, are very different spirits. The similarities in the names make the distinction difficult for Americans. This article was intended to help clear that up, not serve as a criticism of soju.

      “Artisinal” seems to be a word that pisses a lot of people off, probably due to its overuse by the American food & beverage industry. However, in using the definition for artisan, it should become clear, “one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods” … this is exactly how many honkaku shochus are made. Using traditional methods with a small team of dedicated workers producing something unique.

      As I said in my finish, “I’d be very pleased to find that there are artisinal Korean sojus that focus on quality rather than low cost, but I’ve yet to find one. If you know of one, please comment and I’ll try to find it for myself.”

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Interesting, I was also not aware that Japanese liqueurs had a Sochu category.
    Even top sushi restaurants never mention anything like it in their menus so had assumed that sake was the equivalent of soju in terms of nationality.
    Nonetheless, I also thought this article a bit biased because only two types of alcohols were compared to each other.

    You also mentioned that you were Intimately familiar with the Japanese palate (not Korean) in a previous comment here. Wouldn’t that indicate that you did not fairly judge the types of alcohols as you only had limited knowledge about the korean palate? Another indication of bias in your writing.

    If you truly were an expert in Sochu/Soju ( I am definitely NOT), then you would also know that (coincidentally) their names are phonetically similar as they originate from very close geographical locations and they could have also originated from a parent drink from the past. So they could very well be the same thing. I think they are made the same way with different ingredients, Rice in soju and Barley in sochu respectively.

    As with referring you to an “artisan” Korean Soju, you said so yourself that the Korean Soju industry was “destroyed” by the rice famine. You will have to go out yourself and find a very small independent maker that wasn’t able to export out of the country thanks to competition from well established soju makers.

  5. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Elizabeth.

    Korean soju is different from Japanese shochu in many ways, which I’ve now updated in this piece, which I originally wrote almost 2 years ago. I’ve since learned quite a bit about both how shochu is made and where soju went wrong, at least with what they export.

    Japanese korui shochu is very similar to Korean soju, but it’s not something that the Japanese focus on exporting. Instead they’ve decided to export high quality honkaku shochu, which is a different distillation process entirely with much more focus on high quality products.

    I don’t know how the Korean soju industry is run, but the Japanese Sake & Shochu Manufacturers Association has encouraged export from small distilleries. Some have just a few employees and yet manage to sell to the US market. Perhaps internal Korean politics have prevented small Korean distilleries from achieving similar market reach. A friend’s wife is Korean and her father recently brought back a bottle of artisinal soju, which I’m eager to try. It may change my opinion entirely.

    • Susan Park says:

      Stephen: You’re absolutely correct about internal Korean politics preventing small Korean distilleries from achieving similar market reach. In fact, the Korean government actively colludes with corporate giants such as Jinro (and Hite) to keep small makers from even producing, let alone marketing domestically or abroad.

  6. Kat w says:

    I am Korean-American with limited experience of Korea. My experience with soju is cheap and ubiquitous with an inability to find different grades (like different grades of vodka from absolut to grey goose) in the US as well as the one summer I spent in Korea (albeit not in Seoul) as a young adult. My husband recently brought shochu back from a business trip that cost him about $50 and I totally pooh poohed it, as well as a korean friend of mine as an assimilation of the “original” soju. Well, that night, both of us drank most of that bottle while our white husbands liked it far less in favor of their beer and scotch. Since then, I’ve been a convert. I wish korea could make more than a cheap grade of soju (that I can buy in the states)!! I bet it would be amazing. In the meantime, I’ll drink shochu. I’m not a young college student anymore drinking absolutely and bud Weiser anymore…..

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