Julia Mellor has made it her mission to bring traditional Korean liquors into the international spotlight. She has studied traditional fermentation methods at some of the country’s best-known institutes, worked with artisanal breweries, and gained a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the country’s sool (the Korean word for “alcohol”) industry. She’s also a co-founder of The Sool Company, a business promoting traditional Korean alcoholic drinks, including soju.
“The green bottle [mass-produced, commercial soju] is very iconic to Korea. Everyone thinks that it’s the most traditional representation of Korean alcohol, but it’s actually not,” she says. “The green bottle was only introduced to Korea in the 1960s when there was a rice famine during the Korean War.” If you go back to more traditional distillation styles, there’s a whole world of sojus out there – if you know where to find them.
In Seoul, soju is everywhere. But finding more “traditional” styles isn’t often as simple as going to a bar; in fact, the concept of a “soju bar” is fairly alien to most Koreans. You’d be hard-pressed to find one in the South Korean capital, Mellor says. There are two important reasons why.
Firstly, Koreans often drink in a very different way to Westerners. Soju is drunk throughout the night and is usually paired with food in a restaurant. “It’s not really selected for its quality… It’s basically the conduit to get to know somebody.”
Secondly, it’s not all about soju. Korea is home to a host of other alcohols – in particular, makgeolli and cheongju, the latter of which was once the preferred drink of the royal court. These drinks are less well-known abroad; they are harder to export, as they’re drunk fresh and have a much shorter shelf life.
For a good quality soju experience, you’ll want to hit the traditional alcohol bars. They’re all over Seoul, and they’ll usually serve the full range of Korean liquors, including soju, makgeolli, takju and cheongju. Mellor notes that “the challenge is not where to go. The challenge is what to order”.
Soju is not strictly defined, meaning that it has plenty of variations. Traditionally it’s made through rice fermentation. But mass-produced sojus generally use another starch such as sweet potato – a hangover from the Korean War, when shortages caused the government to ban the use of rice in liquor production. If you’re simply looking to get drunk, then you can’t go wrong with mass-produced, green-bottle soju; mix it with beer (a combination known as so-maek) if you need to take the edge off.
But how can you tell what’s good soju? “There are so many complexities of what would create a good soju,” Mellor explains. The basics are the ingredients; rice, water and the fermentation starter unique to Korea called nuruk. Used in traditional fermentation methods, nuruk is a dry cake containing wild yeasts, koji mould spores and bacteria. As well as sweetness from the rice, Mellor says, “You should also have this slight, almost earthy kind of characteristic that comes from the nuruk“.
For a down-to-earth (and wallet-friendly) soju-drinking experience, head to a pojangmacha (street food tent). Here, you can drink green-bottle soju paired with hearty street foods such as pajeon (a seafood pancake) or tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce). There are pojangmachas all over Seoul, including glitzy Gangnam (between subway exits 11 and 12).
Have you really been to Seoul until you’ve drunk soju outside a convenience store? This is the ultimate budget soju experience (expect to pay around 1,700 won (£1.15) for a 335-milliliter bottle). You’ll see Koreans from all walks of life doing the same.