This Is the Top-Selling Spirit Brand in the World—and You’ve Probably Never Tried It
With the rising popularity of K-Pop and Korean films and TV shows over the last decade, chances are you’ve seen people drink soju. Made from distilled grains and often fruit-flavored, it’s the most popular spirit in Korea—and soon, potentially the world. A report from International Wine & Spirits Research expects it to gain huge international traction over the next five years. So if you’re looking to try something new over the best beer, red wine, and whiskey cocktails, do yourself a favor and try soju.
What Is Soju and What Is Soju Made From?
Soju is not, as it’s often mistaken for, rice wine. It’s made from distilled grains and tends to range from 12 to 25 percent ABV (although you can find even stronger ones out there). It’s the best-selling liquor in the world, with 100 million nine-liter cases sold in 2022, which out-sold even Smirnoff vodka.
You might confuse soju with shochu—sow-joo and show-choo, respectively—but there are some notable differences. Shochu is a regulated Japanese spirit that’s distilled once, whereas soju is a Korean spirit that’s distilled multiple times. They can both be made from the same base ingredients of rice, sweet potato, and barley. However, shochu can also be made from sugar cane and soju can be made from tapioca.
What Does Soju Taste Like?
The plain version of soju has a similar taste to vodka, but without the signature burn and watery eyes. It’s far smoother, meaning even if you’re not a fan of the Russian stuff, you’ll be able to handle shots of soju. My personal favorites are the flavored variants, and there are a lot of them: strawberry, peach, grape, and even yogurt. I prefer grapefruit, as it’s the best middle ground between sweet and plain.
Where to Buy Soju
For folks who are stateside, you can find soju in select liquor stores as well as online as sites like Total Wine and even Uber Eats.
How to Drink Soju
When I stayed in Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, last year, I experienced soju drinking culture firsthand. Many Korean barbecue restaurants refuse to seat solo diners, so every table had several people around it and numerous empty bottles of soju on top. Even parents going out for a meal would order a bottle or two to share while their kids looked on.
Soju is commonly enjoyed in rounds of shots, and it’s polite to pour for others before refilling your own glass. If you aren’t a fan of necking your drinks, you can sip to savor the expensive or artisanal brands.
There are also some games you can play while drinking soju. One involves removing the bottle cap and straightening out the strip of metal attached to it. Take turns flicking the rod until it breaks off. Depending on the chosen rule, whoever gets the final flick either has to down a shot themselves or choose someone else to.
Another game has you fill a glass halfway with beer and float a shot glass on top. Players then take turns pouring soju into the shot glass. The person who makes it sink has to down the entire concoction.
On the underside of soju bottle caps, there’s a number that ranges from one to 100, and you can use this to play a game, too. Someone looks, and everyone else guesses. The person who knows says higher or lower, and the person to guess correctly makes everyone else drink. If you’re feeling particularly devilish, you can also make people drink for every incorrect guess.
There are also some great ways to mix soju. For the most popular method, called somaek, you pour a shot of soju into a glass of beer. If done with the flavored variants, this can give the beer a nice fruity taste—maybe skip the yogurt one for this drink, though.
But the best way to drink soju, in my opinion, is in a Yakult cocktail. Yakult is a popular probiotic milk beverage. Mixing dairy and spirits might sound odd, but if you like white Russians, you’ll love this—and so will your gut microbiome.
How to Make a Yakult Soju Cocktail All the necessary ingredients for a tasty Yakult soju cocktail.
Issy van der Velde
- One shot (1.5 oz) Soju
- One bottle of probiotic drink Yakult
- Lemon-lime soda
- Pour a shot of soju into a highball glass.
- Add a bottle of Yakult and stir to combine.
- Top off the glass with soda.
The most popular and widely available soju comes from Korean manufacturer Jinro. Fortunately, it’s also very affordable. There are plenty of flavors to choose from and, with its low price point, I’d recommend getting the plain version and a fruity variant to see which you prefer.
If you want an American-made—but still authentic!—soju, Yobo’s got you covered. Made by Korean-American entrepreneur Carolyn Kim, Yobo offers some more upmarket drinks. The luxe soju is made from Northern California grapes, California rice, and organic wheat, offering a complex taste and a smooth finish. It also sells flavored variants that have real fruit juice in them.
If you’re still not entirely sold on the idea of soju but you enjoy whiskey, try West 32 soju reserve. This is a New York barrel-aged soju. It’s stronger than the other recommendations, at 32 percent ABV, but it should still have that smooth feeling.