The start of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, has piqued my interest in soju, the country's traditional spirit. You may know soju, if you know it at all, as a cheap, sweet, rubbing alcohol-like liquor that gets you drunk fast, and there's definitely plenty of that going around. But some new producers are trying to put a finer point on it, both by harking back to its roots and with innovation.
Traditionally, soju was made from rice, fermented and then distilled. When Japan annexed Korea in 1910, rice crops were siphoned off to feed the Japanese army. With little rice left to themselves, the Koreans started making soju from other ingredients, like sorghum, tapioca and sweet potatoes. The Korean government would institute a ban on rice distillation for soju decades later, because of crop shortages, from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s.
Although rice is allowed today, it is labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive, so mass-produced soju is still made from all kinds of things. While traditional operations exist in South Korea, their bottlings aren't exported to the U.S.—and that's the void distiller Brandon Hill wanted to fill with his Tokki label. "I didn't want the U.S. to only know one type of soju, especially one that's not a traditional soju," he said.
Fascinated by the types of grain and yeast distillers use in the Far East and antsy to move overseas, Hill landed in Seoul in 2011 and earned a master's degree in traditional Korean alcohol history and production from Kyonggi University. Upon returning to the U.S., he got a job at Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., making whiskey and rum, but soon dabbled in soju again when demand from friends and the Korean restaurant community grew. Tokki was born in early 2016.
Hill makes a traditional recipe using chapssal, a sticky, sushi-grade organic rice, as well as a wild yeast called nuruk—no chemicals, sugars or additives. "You get a lot of sweetness from the rice," he said. His white label is 23 percent alcohol by volume and his black label is 40 percent.
Another stateside take on soju comes from Daniel Lee and Maxwell Fine, who started West 32 Soju, also in 2016. Lee, who is Korean, would often bring Fine to Koreatown in New York for food and plenty of soju. "It's an instrumental part of Korean culture and Koreans eating meals together," said Fine. But the artificial sweeteners, like saccharine and glycerol, often pumped into commercial soju would soon make their hangovers unbearable. The pair decided to make a natural, gluten-free, 20 percent alcohol soju with an American twist: It's made with corn, an abundant grain, which they source from New York and Connecticut.
Because of soju's flexibility in terms of base ingredient, there is plenty of room for innovation. Take Yobo Soju, which is made from Catawba grapes in New York's Finger Lakes region. "Grapes have this natural elegance when it comes to aromatics," said owner Carolyn Kim, a public-interest attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles by day and who launched the label with her husband, James Kumm, in partnership with Finger Lakes Distilling. The couple was inspired by the popularity surge of Korean cuisine, but saw that there was a limited amount of premium soju to drink with it at restaurants.
Soju fans say the spirit pairs with a wide range of Korean specialties, standing up to both fermented foods and Korean barbecue. (There is a Korean word, anju, specifically for food consumed with alcohol.) It can be sipped on its own, at room temperature or slightly chilled, but it has also gained traction in cocktails.
Ryan Te, beverage director at Oiji, a Korean restaurant in New York's East Village, says he uses soju in cocktails as a vodka replacement, as the former has more character. "[Soju] has more roundness and body, so it makes drinks a little more lush." Some, like Tokki and Hwayo, another premium brand, have only been distilled twice.
But while he wants to expose people to premium soju at Oiji, on his own time, he still drinks plenty of the "cheap stuff." When you've been drinking it for years, he says, it's actually a comforting taste. "I've been hanging out with Koreans for so long ... you just have a kind of memory association with [it]."