Still very far from being bar staples in America, I’ve begun to see these more and more (and made sure they were stocked on my bar shelves upon entry) – and rightfully so. The light versatility of these spirits lend themselves well to both the craft cocktail as well as the casual (and dare I say college?) drinker. While they certainly deserve their own stories, more on that later; they’re often confused, as East Asian beverages that rhyme and also start with the same letter, and thus the reason I paired them together for this post.
More soju is sold than any other alcohol in the world.
It’s a Korean distilled spirit usually made from rice, though some brands use other base ingredients like sweet potato or barley, the reverberations of a national rice shortage from about 1960 to 1990. ABV averages out around 20%.
What it tastes like: most often, it’s compared to vodka, sometimes called “Korean vodka”. And just like vodka, it comes in a spectrum of flavors. Some can be milky and sweet, while others can be reminiscent of cleaning solution. Or both at the same time.
How it’s most often consumed: shots. (Cue LMFAO’s “Shots” now residing in my brain – like a the most unwanted broken record – for the rest of the day.) But not like a typical shot (or how LMFAO portrays), like in a really respectful way to one’s elders. Also readily combined with beer (somaek).
What to look for: Jinro, by far the most popular brand, selling twice as much soju as Smirnoff (the second largest spirits brand) sells vodka.
The national spirit of Japan (no, that’s not sake’s title), shochu is a clear distilled beverage that can be made from a host of base ingredients: buckwheat, barley, rice, and sweet potatoes, to name a few. ABV is usually in the 25% range.
What it tastes like: while it might confusingly be compared to sake, shochu itself can have a range of flavors. Generally neutral, the good ones will reflect the base ingredient it’s made from.
How it’s most often consumed: by adding cold or hot water, or on the rocks.
What to look for: Iichiko, offering a few options across price-points. The highest end, Iichiko Frasco, won the Chairman’s Trophy in the 2013 Ultimate Beverage Challenge -kind of a big deal in the spirits world.