Soju (Hangul 소주; Hanja 燒酒) is a distilled beverage native to Korea. Jinro and Lotte soju are the first and third top selling alcohol brands in the world. Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter due to sugars added in the manufacturing process. It is usually consumed neat.
Most brands of soju are made in South Korea. Though it is traditionally made from rice, most modern producers of soju use supplements or even replace rice with other starches, such aspotatoes, wheat, barley, sweet potatoes, or tapioca.
Soju is clear and colorless. Its alcohol content varies from about 16.7%, to about 45% alcohol by volume (ABV) for traditional Andong soju, with 20% ABV being most common. It is widely consumed, in part, because of its relatively low price in Korea. A typical 375mL bottle of soju costs the consumer 1,000 to 3,000 South Korean Won in South Korea (roughly $1 to $3 United States Dollars). In the USA, it tends to cost substantially more – $5 or more.
Soju was first distilled around 13th century during the Mongol invasions of Korea. The Mongols had acquired the technique of distilling arak (aragh) from the Persians (Iran) 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 Kaesong. Indeed, in the area surroundingKaesong, soju is known as arak-ju (hangul: 아락주).
From 1965 until 1999, in order to alleviate rice shortages, the Korean government prohibited the traditional distillation of soju from rice. Instead, highly distilled ethanol from sweet potatoes and tapioca was mixed with water, flavoring, and sweetener to create soju. Although the prohibition has been lifted, cheap soju continues to be made this way. The Korean government regulates the alcohol content of diluted soju to less than 35%, but alcohol levels have continued to fall in order to reduce production costs. The lower alcohol concentration also makes the drink milder to consume, which may broaden its appeal.
Several regions have resumed distilling soju from grain. Soju from Andong, South Korea is a traditional hand-crafted soju that has about 45% ABV.