Soju is a rice spirit. Add yeast-like organisms to rice and water in a jar, let sit, and in a few weeks you have cloudy rice wine – makgeolli – at the bottom, a lovely concoction of 6-9% alcohol suitable for mixing with honey and fruit. I love makgeolli: it’s sweet, bubbly, tart, it’s refreshing even as it gets you wasted. Typically, there are major health benefits claimed by its manufacturers – but then, health benefits are claimed for a lot of natural foods, and I suspect not drinking is even healthier. But no one’s going to do that.
You also have a clear liquor – soju – of 20-25% alcohol at the top, suitable for disinfecting counters. I can’t stand soju, possibly because I haven’t tried the expensive varieties. But I also can’t stand sake or vodka that hasn’t been chilled to ice: I had a bad experience growing up involving 11 shots of lemon vodka that permanently impaired my ability to appreciate clear spirits. So soju just tastes like rubbing alcohol to me… not that I’ve had a lot of that, at least.
So, this seemed like a plant from the Korean tourist board. But if you follow the links, the Drinks Int’l report shows it’s true: not only does Jinro soju more than double sales vs its nearest competitors, but 4th on the list is Lotte soju. That’s two varieties of soju in the top 5-selling spirits of the world, selling millions of cases a year.
However… both are classed as ‘regional’ sales, meaning 80% of sales take place in the region. This isn’t the world enjoying Korean liquor; it’s Koreans getting very, very drunk. My respect for the salarymen and women – who have told me personally that not drinking is not an option when holding business meetings till 11pm on week nights – just moved up a notch.
However, I think the Korean government may have to think twice before celebrating its topping of the OECD list for alcohol consumption. Alcohol in moderation or occasional overindulgence is a pleasure; the socially enforced drinking rules – in which people drink till they wobble and puke because it’s expected of them – are just as tragic here as in North American freshers week, but here they last your whole working life. As a Korean friend of mine told me, in the west alcoholism is private, a matter of stashing bottles under your bed; here it’s public. And I watched enough after-school specials growing up to understand the power of peer pressure.
The report disabused me of one notion: that Koreans can’t handle their liquor due to the genetic component of alcohol flush reaction. On the contrary, they can handle their liquor much better than I can. They have to.