Soju, in its myriad incarnations, is the most widely consumed spirit in the world. I mean, vodka is really the most consumed spirit, given that every spirit is really some form of vodka, but that’s an unnecessary nuance.
Soju, or shochu, or shaojiu, is a grain-neutral spirit traditionally made from rice but also made from sweet potato, barley, tapioca wheat, or any other starchy grain or sugar source. So, again, it’s basically vodka.
What sets soju apart, however, is two-fold. First, soju is generally bottled at around 20-25% alcohol, as opposed to 40-50% alcohol for most other distilled spirits. Soju is also distilled only once, typically, so more of the grain flavor is retained than in vodkas, which go through multiple distillations so as to render it virtually flavorless.
So what does this mean and why do I like it so much?
As a low-proof spirit, soju is equally bracing and refreshing. Unlike vodka, good soju is also quite flavorful and is pleasurable on its own and doesn’t require a mixer. Soju on the rocks is a perfect aperitif and is also quite food-friendly. In particular, it is well paired with fish (particularly shellfish) and spicy food. It stimulates the appetite like a cocktail without setting you on the course to blackout island. A soju or two is the perfect start to a dinner before transitioning into beer, sake.
Although the dirt cheap stuff is perhaps best used for cleaning toilet bowls, soju also offers the best bang for the buck at a tier or two above floor polish. It is half the price of vodka (or less), better tasting, and more refreshing. It doesn’t demolish the palate while giving you a robust buzz to start a spirited evening.
So, yeah. Soju. Give it a go. Probably can only find it at an Asian market or at Korean and Japanese restaurants, but seek it out.
(Disclosure: I sell soju. But I also really really like it.)