If you’ve never heard of soju, your cocktail world is about to be rocked. Soju is a distilled beverage, especially popular in South Korea. In some places in the United States, like New York and California, soju can be sold at bars that don’t have a full liquor license – as long as it’s less than 25 percent alcohol.
Since it’s a clear alcohol, it’s kind of like half-proof vodka, but it tastes sweeter since sugar is added. It’s also a lot less appetizing than vodka. It’s traditionally made from rice, but some sojus are made from other grains or even sweet potatoes. Like vodka, it comes in a ton of different flavors, but soju has the claim of being the most popular alcohol in the world, though it seems to be struggling to sway Americans.
Soju is traditionally served straight up, but it also makes a great cocktail mixer – especially if those bars that only have beer and wine licenses want to expand their menu. Higher-proof sojus hold up well in cocktails, and can be used as a substitute for vodka, gin or whiskey.
Soju is an alcohol for getting drunk – you can drink more of it since it has a lower alcohol content than hard liquor, and it pairs well with all kinds of food. Drinking soju is meant to be part of a social experience, whether you’re listening to K-pop or embarrassing yourself at karaoke.
Since soju is such a pillar of Korean culture, there’s a lot of etiquette that goes along with drinking it. Soju is normally served in a shot glass – but you don’t have to drink it like a shot if you don’t want to (though you should probably just get it over with). You’re never supposed to pour your own glass of soju, and if you’re pouring for someone else, use your right hand. If you’re drinking with your parents or grandparents, it’s polite to turn away from the table while drinking, and bow your head when they hand a glass of soju to you.
Of course, if you’re at an American bar that’s serving soju, none of these rules apply. At Barcade in New York, they serve a twist on Long Island iced tea using soju, sake, mead, lime and a splash of Coke, and at Kitchen Story in San Francisco, they use soju in place of vodka for a brunch time Bloody Mary.
If you can get your hands on a bottle of soju, try substituting it in your favorite cocktail. Or, try this soju spin on one of the simplest cocktails ever: a screwdriver.