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Moving Beyond the Green Blur: a History of Soju
by Ines Cho
October 21, 2005
The nation's ultimate social unifier is poised for an upscale makeover
It is a quintessentially Korean scene: greasy slabs of pink pork and red-hot kimchi smoking and sizzling on barbeque gridiron, the sound of the crackling meat indistinguishable from the clatter of the rain pounding the street, both a background blur in the loud slur of conversation. The young and the restless are tired and worn out, the peachy-skinned girls have turned beet red, the stodgy business-suit elites are laying passed out on the floor.
They are all victims, abusers and lovers of soju, Korea's favorite poison, the drink of the average working Kim.
Soju is the powerfully pungent alcohol that, as some Koreans insist, can magically save their soul from the wretched past. It can take them to high places where no drugs could lift them; its liquid balm heals wounded hearts. To novelists like Kim Jong-kwang, who proudly titled his 2003 compilation of short stories, "The Power of Soju and Jjamppong [spicy noodle soup]," soju can even raise and answer existential questions.
But therein lies the contradiction in Korean's soju consumption: even the most fastidious intellectuals, whose taste buds can discern a Gran Cru from a Cru (classifications of French wine), remain faithful to what connoisseurs readily dismiss as a cheap, low-grade vodka designed for desperate alcoholics.
As Seo Jin-yeong, a sales and marketing staff at Sunyang Brewery Co. puts it,"It is a 95-percent ethyl alcohol base, plus water and flavors and sweeteners, but it's cheap and popular." He says that Korea still produces authentic soju, made from pure vapors produced through distillation process, but the good stuff costs more. The real thing, usually available in a fancy ceramic bottle, is displayed on glass shelves or presented as a gift.
While distilled spirits, or jeungryusik soju in Korean, vary in aromas and tastes, the diluted alcohol, or hiseoksik soju, is usually nothing but a tasteless and powerful ethyl alcohol.
The major change in Korean soju production occurred in 1995, when the revised Liquor Tax allowed soju-makers to use additives such as oligosaccharide, a type of sugar substitute, and asparagine, one of the amino acids found in animal proteins.
Koreans who are used to or addicted to this type of spirit can discern subtle differences in flavors, thereby creating changing trends in the domestic soju market.
The older generation (roughly ages 50 and over) prefers the original 50-proof Jinro soju, said Jeon Yeong-tae of the marketing and planning department of Jinro Ltd. This classic soju, first introduced in the 1920s, hasn't evolved much, with the bottle bearing the original logo and toad mascot on the label, but after 80 years, the brand's future is down to its last few drips.
"Right now consumers want a mild taste and a lower content of alcohol [in soju]," Mr. Jeon said. "We're the first soju maker to have added stevioside, a sweetener, in our best-selling Chamiseul brand." Stevioside is derived from Stevia Rebaudiana, a South American plant and is a carbohydrate-free, natural sweetener.
Chamiseul, which was introduced in 1998, Mr. Jeon says, fits the tastes of Korea's contemporary imbibers not only because of its milder flavor but also due to its "clean and pure" image. "A soju's sales also depend on its concept and image, too," he says.
Other brands have joined the bandwagon to please contemporary soju drinkers. All packaged in bright green medium-size bottles (about 300 to 360 milliliters), the Korean soju, now about 42 proof, pushes a brighter, cleaner and even healthier image. New brands, which go in and out of fashion like hairstyles, tout their virtues either through their manufacturing process (purified through bamboo charcoals or mineral stones, or whatever)or in their ingredients (from liquid oxygen to maple syrup to Xylitol). Some soju is even labeled as "well-being."
The origin of soju production in Korea goes back to Goryeo Dynasty in the 13th century, when the Persian distilling technique came to Korea via Mongolia and the Chinese Yuan Dynasty. The stuff was called araki, a popular Mongolian term used in Eastern Europe, Japan and the steppe of Central Asia. Because soju was made from grains, it was pricey and used mainly for medicinal purposes.
Most Koreans made various traditional alcoholic beverages at home until the Joseon Dynasty, and Andong Soju, the eponymous creation of the town in the Gyeongsang region, became one of the country's most highly sought-after spirits. A rice shortage led to soju making being temporarily banned, but domestic distilling quickly returned and thrived until terminated by the Japanese-controlled government in 1907. The new liquor law levied a heavy tax on locally-produced spirits, and native Korean liquors were pushed aside in favor of beer, sake and whiskey.
After Korea was liberated from Japan, the few breweries that were still in operation began to produce various alcoholic beverages, but after the Korean War in the early 50s, the market was dominated by the inexpensive diluted form of alcohol rather than Korea's authentic grain liquors. In 1965, the government, concerned about the country's insufficient rice crop, banned the use of rice for making soju, and distilleries turned to sweet potatoes and tapioca to make the alcohol base then used water and additives to dilute it. The ban was finally dropped in 1999.
The result was a smash hit in poverty-wracked Korea, and in 1973 the government forcibly consolidated the breweries into one for each province. Small breweries were merged and the industry was totally reorganized. As a result, only 10 breweries controlled their local markets in the country's 10 provinces.
The strict regulations have loosened over time and products can now be sold outside of their designated regions, but only in small quantities. For example, the C1 and Hallasan lines, distributed exclusively in Busan and Jeju Island, respectively, are sold in one bar and one restaurant in Seoul.
The biggest player in the country since its establishment in 1924 is Jinro, based in Seoul. The brand now takes up more than 55 percent of the domestic soju market in Korea. The company has exported its liquor to over 50 countries since 1968. The remaining 45 percent is split up by nine other soju-makers: Kumbokju of North Gyeongsang province; Daesun of Busan; Muhak of South Gyeongsang province; Bohae of South Jeolla province; Doosan of Gangwon province; Hite of North Gyeongsang province; Sunyang of Chungcheong province and Hallasan of Jeju Island.
Korean soju drinkers had a brief encounter with high-quality soju in the mid-1990s. In an attempt to revive the old tradition and boost its lead in the market, Jinro introduced a premium brand, called "Chamnamutong Malgeun Sul," which could be translated as "Clean Soju Aged in Oakwood Barrel." The company also had a now-defunct brand, "Legend," made by a Korean master blender. The new breed of brands by leading soju-producers, including "Gimsatgat" and "Gombawu," cost about three to four times more than regular soju, but were authentic distilled sojus with mild flavors. By 1999, however, all of the high-end brands had left the market.
Mr. Jeon at Jinro said he thought the poor performance of the upscale sojus was due mostly to bad timing: Korea was soon hit by an economic crisis in 1998, and even though people had more sorrows to drown, they had less money to spend. Most Korean consumers who remembered the revival soju brands said the soju was "too sweet," or more importantly, "too weak to get drunk quickly."
So are Koreans stuck drinking rocket fuel? Hold your glass there: Both consumers and producers are slowly becoming more aware of the quality of Korean soju, and both discount outlets and upscale restaurants are stocking up on high-quality soju, a sign of a revival for one of Korea's oldest drinking traditions.
Like the trendy Japanese shochu, a distilled spirit very similar to Korean soju, local companies have packaged the original distilled soju in classier bottles and dropped the portion of alcohol to 17 to 21 percent from the typical 35 or 40 percent.
"We predict that diluted soju won't be dominating the market for too much longer," said Mr. Seo at Sunyang. "Our own traditionally distilled soju is much better for one's health."
Sunyang Brewery, Mr. Seo says, didn't do so well with its high-end distilled soju brands in the past, but sensing the potential market shift, the company is in the process of repackaging its Cheongdam soju, currently sold in old-fashioned heavy celadon vases. "It's the younger generation who will be drinking the real soju in the future, so the new bottle design will be new and modern," Mr. Seo said.
The new Sipguse, a milder version of Andong Soju hailed from North Gyeongsang province, tastes smooth, with a light and naturally malty flavor. It costs just a tad more, about 200 to 500 won (18 to 48 cents) over the price of regular supermarket soju, but hey, it's the real thing. It tastes and looks great.
Maybe it will make all those drunken memories worthwhile.
A simplified guide to the popular sojus Koreans can't live without:
No Korean soju is the same. The three green boxes around Sipguse, Andong Soju and Andong Soju Ilpum signify pure diluted soju. All diluted soju brands in Korea are colorless but not odorless. The texture of soju is similar to that of a strong wine when tested in crystal Ridel glasses at room temperature, but all are indistinguishable to the eye.
The first impression given by the classic Korean spirit is not so pungent. But don't let first impressions fool you: the spirit quickly overpowers you with a whopping punch of alcohol, 25 percent, and the aftertaste makes you reach for a chaser.
One of the stronger sojus in the market at 50 proof, each shot has a powerful whallop. Despite its modern image, it's far from subtle and leaves behind an equally heavy but sweet aftertaste.
At 42 proof, it tastes relatively mild. It is well-rounded with a light sweet flavor due to its maple syrup additive. It has clean and slightly minty aftertaste. Its brewery, based in Mokpo, South Jeolla province, was established in 1950.
Available mostly in South Gyeongsang province, the soju, with 21 percent alcohol, contains Xylitol, honey and asparagine. It has a strong alcohol taste with a sweet flavor, leaving behind a licorice-like aftertaste.
It starts out almost bland, but its alcoholic content at 42 proof is quite sharp. It leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. It contains an extract from Japanese Raisins (Hovenia Dulcis Thumb), which is rich in both sugar and minerals.
This is the choice soju for the future. At only 19 percent alcohol, it is a pure soju made in Andong, North Gyeongsang province, and is light and mild with a hint of malt. Its creamy texture leaves a slightly bittersweet aftertaste.
This soju originates in Busan and is almost exclusively distributed in the south end of Korea. It has the most pungent alcoholic scent of any soju, and its taste is a shock to the palate combined with a bitter chemical aftertaste.
Andong Soju Ilpum
This soju, made in North Gyeongsang province, starts with a mild malty scent mixed with pungent alcoholic odor, but it becomes smooth and leaves behind a clean aftertaste. It is 51 percent rice and 21 percent alcohol.
Sold and distributed in the Chungcheong region by Sunyang Brewery Co.
The soju is 41 proof and contains pure oxygen. It starts with a subtly floral hint and has a light, smooth texture, but leaves behind a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Hallasanmul Sunhan Soju
This soju, sold on Jeju island and in one Jeju cuisine restaurant in Seoul, is slightly pungent at first but then is mild, smooth and sweet. It contains 21 percent alcohol, weak alkaline water and asparagine.
Distributed by Kumbokju Inc., established in 1957, the soju is based in North Gyeongsang province. It has a crippling alcoholic odor but its taste is roundly sweet and leaves behind only a minor shock to the tongue.
Found mostly in North Jeolla province, Hite Soju contains 21 percent alcohol and asparagine. It is one of the mildest sojus in the market, and it's almost bland in the mouth with only subdued taste of alcohol and sweet flavor.
This is the pure 70-proof soju from Andong, North Gyeongsang province, famous for its Korean traditional soju. Its taste holds nothing back, almost shocking to the palate, but it has a nice malty flavor and leaves behind a clean aftertaste.
This new soju, introduced last year by Doosan BG, is made with mineral water off Daegwallyeong mountains plus green tea extract as well as asparagine. The soju tastes stronger than most brands with milder tastes.