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Soju (Hangul 소주; Hanja 燒酒) is a distilled beverage native to Koreamarker.

Most brands of modern soju are made in South Koreamarker. Though traditionally made from rice, most major brands supplement or even replace the rice with other starches such as potato, wheat, barley, sweet potato, or tapioca (called dangmil in Korean). Soju is clear in colour and typically varies in alcohol content from about 20% to about 45% alcohol by volume (ABV), with 20% ABV being most common. Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter because of the sugars added in the manufacturing process.


Linguistically, the word soju is the Korean rendering of the Chinese 燒酒; pinyin: shaojiu, which literally means "burned liquor". (Incidentally, the Dutch-derived English word brandy—literally "burned wine"—uses the same linguistic concept to describe a distilled alcoholic beverage.) The Chinese word shaojiu is rendered in Japanese as shōchū, the word that denotes a distilled alcoholic beverage that is similar to soju.

Soju in Korea


Soju was first distilled around 1300s during the Mongol invasions of Korea. The Mongols had acquired the technique of distilling arak from the Persiansmarker during their invasion of Central Asia/Middle East around 1256, then it was subsequently introduced to Koreans and distilleries were set up around the city of Kaesongmarker. Indeed, in the area surrounding Kaesongmarker, soju is known as arak-ju (hangul: 아락주).

From 1965 until 1991, in order to alleviate rice shortages, the Korean government prohibited the traditional direct distillation of soju from fermented grain. Instead, highly distilled ethanol from any source was mixed with water and flavorings to create diluted soju . Although the prohibition has now been lifted, cheap soju continues to be made this way. The Korean government regulates the alcohol content of diluted soju to less than 35%.

Several regions have resumed manufacturing soju from the traditional distillation of grain, resulting in distilled soju. Soju from Andong is the most famous of all, with an ABV around 45%.


Jinro bottle of Soju.
Jinro is the largest manufacturer of soju. (75.99 million cases sold in 2008). The most popular variety of soju is currently Chamisul (참 이슬 - literally meaning "real dew"), a quadruple-filtered soju produced by Jinro, but recently Cheoum Cheoreom (처음처럼 - "like the first time") of Lotte (롯데) is raising its market share. However, the most popular brands vary by region. In Busanmarker, Siwon Soju (시원 소주) is the local and most popular brand. The Daegumarker Metropolitan Area has its own soju manufacturer, Kumbokju with the popular brand Charm (참) . In Gyeongsangnam-domarker and Ulsanmarker, the most popular is White Soju (hangul: 화이트소주), produced by Muhak in Masanmarker. However, as soon as one crosses the border from Ulsanmarker north to Gyeongjumarker in Gyeongsangbuk-domarker, it is almost impossible to buy White Soju and instead the most popular is Chamisul and Charm.


Soju is usually drunk in group gatherings while eating, unmixed and portioned into individual shot glasses. It is against traditional custom in Korea to fill one's own glass. Instead, it must be filled by someone else at the table. This promotes a spirit of thoughtfulness and camaraderie.

In Korean culture, using two hands to offer and accept items is considered an act of respect. Accordingly, if one's glass is going to be filled by a superior, one should hold the glass with both hands. Similarly, when pouring soju for an elder, one holds the bottle with both hands.

To pour a drink, hold the bottle in the right hand with the left hand touching the right forearm or elbow; this peculiar arm position originated from the practice of holding back the sleeve of the hanbok so that it wouldn't touch the table or the food.

Similarly, when receiving a drink, rest the glass in the left palm and hold it with the right hand, perhaps bowing the head slightly to show additional respect. You can also hold the glass using the same hand positions as when pouring. Pouring and receiving with just the right hand by a senior, or between equals, is common in normal situations.

Koreans often say "one shot", a challenge to everyone in the group to down their glass in one gulp.

A glass should not be refilled unless completely empty and should be promptly refilled once empty; it is considered rude to not fill someone else's glass when empty.

Some special rules apply when drinking with someone of much higher status, i.e. greater age or rank. When drinking in front of elders (people older than you), the junior is expected to turn away from the elder first. Drinking the shot while directly facing the elder is considered disrespectful. However in recent years, the prevalent practice has been to drink the shot without turning away from the elder (but still using both hands to drink), as most Koreans view the practice as archaic and a detriment to camaraderie, irrespective of the age groups involved.

On occasions, an elder gives an empty soju shot glass (usually his/hers) to an equal or junior. A junior may also offer an empty glass to a senior after they have established a closer relationship.

Giving the glass implies that the person is going to fill it and wants the receiver to drink it. It is not obligatory to finish the drink immediately, but it is impolite to place the glass on the table without at least pretending to drink from it.

After finishing the entire glass, it should be returned and refilled. It is not necessary to return it immediately, but holding it for a long time is considered rude, as it deprives the giver of his glass.

Among friends of equal social status, it is not necessary to use both hands while pouring or receiving a drink, but may be done out of habit or politeness, or if the situation is considered a particularly formal one.


Although beer, whiskey, and wine have been gaining popularity in recent years, soju remains one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Korea because of its ready availability and relatively low price. More than 3 billion bottles were consumed in South Koreamarker in 2004. In 2006, it was estimated that the average adult Korean (older than 20) had consumed 90 bottles of soju during that year.

Despite tradition, soju is not always consumed in unmixed form. Mixing soju and beer is called somaek, a portmanteau of the words soju and maekju (맥주 - beer). Flavored soju is also available. A poktanju(폭탄주) (lit: "bomb drink,") consists of a shot glass of soju dropped into a pint of draft beer (like a boilermaker) and is drunk quickly. The reverse equivalent, a shot glass of draft beer dropped into a pint of soju, is called soju poktanju (lit: "hydrogen bomb drink"). This is very similar to Sake bomb, which is a Japanesemarker version of poktanju

Soju in the United States

The liquor licensing laws in the states of Californiamarker and New Yorkmarker specifically exempt the sale of soju from regulation relating to the sale of other distilled spirits, allowing businesses with a beer/wine license to sell it without requiring the more expensive license required for other distilled spirits. The only stipulation is that the soju must be clearly labeled as such and contain less than 25% alcohol.

This has led to the appearance in the United Statesmarker of many soju-based equivalents of traditional Western mixed drinks normally based on vodka or similar spirits, such as the soju martini and the soju cosmopolitan. Another consequence is that the manufacturers of similar distilled spirits from other parts of Asia, such as Japanese shochu, have begun to relabel their products as soju for sale in those regions.

Entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Soju was entered into the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2008 and will be included in the printed edition September 1, 2008. Soju is now one of only a handful of Korean words that have entered the English lexicon (others being "kimchi", "taekwondo", and "hangul"). Merriam-Webster dates the word's appearance in the American English lexicon at 1978.

See also

Soju is sometimes mistakenly referred to as cheongju (청주), a Korean rice wine. Mass produced soju is also mistaken for Chinese baijiu, a grain liquor, and shōchū, a Japanesemarker beverage.


  6. 3.05 billion bottles were reported sold in 2004, up from previous years.
  7. Soju Goes Where Vodka Cannot Tread
  8. What is Sochu?

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