Soju History: How Korea’s Signature Beverage Became What It Is Today

Soju occupies a special and cherished place in the hearts of Koreans, having proudly claimed its position as the nation’s signature beverage. Characterised by its clear and colourless appearance, and conventionally served in shot glasses, soju is a recurring star in Korea’s distinctive drinking culture. It is enjoyed during gatherings, special occasions, and even in celebration of an end of a typical work day – a distilled drink commonly consumed neat, as with the case of high-quality and deeply nuanced spirits. 

This article pores over the past of soju and how it emerged and evolved from tradition to trend. While the appreciation of soju is universal, a fuller understanding of its rich historical significance provides a pathway to fully savouring its depth and character. Keep reading for insights into Korea’s beloved “burnt liquor” – a timeless yet ancient spirit that has stuck around since the 13th century.

Birth of Soju

The legacy of soju can be traced back to the 13th century during the Goryeo Dynasty, originating from the Levantine distilling technique introduced to Korean shores by Mongol invaders. Derived from the art of distilling arak, a liquor of Mediterranean origin, early soju was crafted to be pure and potent. Distilleries producing this grain-based beverage were set up in Gaegyeong, presently known as Kaesong, in North Korea. This development later led to the creation of Andong soju, an ancestor of the quintessential South Korean soju variety enjoyed today, with roots dating back to the Silla Dynasty.

Soju in the Making

The art of distilling soju underwent constant refinements as Koreans experimented with various forms of fermented rice and grains. Most notably, rice became the ingredient of choice due to its widespread availability and accessibility. The distillation process involves a clay pot and a specialised distilling appliance that facilitate the beverage’s smooth and luscious flavour. This occurs over two weeks until the soju reaches its maximum potential. 

Over time, the tradition of using rice as a brewing ingredient for soju would change with the prohibition of rice-based liquor. This ban, prompted by a nationwide rice shortage, led to the gradual introduction of diluted soju as the next best alternative. This variation of soju uses ethanol derived from sweet potatoes and tapioca and has a lower alcohol by volume (ABV) content at 30%. In a way, the now defunct ban on distilling soju from rice has laid the foundation for the modern soju. Today, this spirit flanks the aisles of Korean supermarkets, captivating the nation and beyond with its clean, light, and versatile character. 

Advancing and Popularising Soju

By the 1970s, the soju industry witnessed a surge with the establishment of about 300 domestic soju companies. In response to the saturated market, the South Korean government began to recognise soju as a national icon, and began emphasising on supporting local soju production. This led to the emergence of few prominent soju companies that still dominate the scene to this day.

The global allure of soju has been compounded by another formidable force in recent years – the Hallyu wave. Sweeping across the globe, the immense popularity of Korean entertainment, notably K-pop and K-dramas, has renewed interest in other facets of Korean culture, with a particular spotlight on its cuisine. This fascination, coupled with effective marketing strategies involving collaborations with celebrities and various initiatives, has propelled soju beyond its status as a national treasure. It has transformed into a worldwide phenomenon, boasting enduring appeal on the international stage, easing its way into the grocery stores, restaurants, and bars of countries in every corner of the world. 

Flavouring Soju for the Modern Market

Flavoured soju has been available since the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that they attained equal status with traditional soju, finding a home in the iconic green bottle. The production of these flavoured varieties involves the use of artificial sweeteners with various flavours, including green apple, peach, grapefruit, lychee, and others. These sojus are less potent, lower in calories, and  strategically designed to appeal to women as a new demographic. The effective use of syrups maintains the beverage’s sweetness throughout its shelf life, creating a brilliant accompaniment to endless drinking experiences, such as with the probiotic drink, Yakult. 

Key Players in Soju Production Today

Not all bestselling sojus are brands with age-old roots tracing back to the very beginning of soju history. While Chamisul by HiteJinro has proven to be a leading and lasting player, others like Chum-Churum by Lotte, and Good Day by Muhak, were released only in 2006 before quickly taking the world by storm.

Constituting a significant portion of the global soju consumer base, South Korea stands as an integral piece of the grand soju puzzle, contributing substantially to its current form. Yet, the influence of soju is no longer confined to South Korea alone, as other nations, especially across Asia, are beginning to play a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of this celebrated spirit. 

In Singapore, Chorong Chorong stands as a brilliant example of the flourishing soju scene, showcasing the evolution of the beverage’s distinctive taste and texture. Boasting a smooth and luxurious mouthfeel, complemented by a diverse array of vibrant and refreshing flavours, we craft top-tier soju for delivery and enjoyment, ensuring an unparalleled experience for discerning alcohol connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. 

Find out more about the soju we offer here and share a bottle of our exceptional soju with family and friends today.

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