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.