Soju (소주) is a clear, slightly sweet and almost odorless alcoholic drink. The word "soju" means burnt liquor and stems from its filtering and distilling process. It's mainly produced in Korea and tends to be consumed in a group atmosphere such as after work gatherings.
As the demand for soju started to increase around the world in the last few years, it has continued to gain popularity, and the ways it can be consumed have changed. Soju was traditionally only drank straight up. You can now find it consumed with other beverages such as beer or other mixers to make a cocktail. Manufacturers such as Jinro are now also making it in fruit flavours like grape, apple and lemon to keep up with ever-increasing demand. Soju is available at many liquor stores and restaurants around the world.
The distilling process that led to the creation of soju was brought to the Korean peninsula by the Mongols in the 1300s. The traditional method is actually quite simple: rice was cooked and placed in large clay pots called onggi (옹기), then yeast, sugar and water were added. The pot would be partially sealed with a cloth and clay lid to allow gas from the fermentation process to escape, and checked over a certain number of days to attain the percentage of alcohol wanted. At this point, it is called makgeolli, a milky-coloured rice wine of about 6-7% alcohol.
Another specially-made type of onggi would form a still, where the liquid was placed over a heat source and evaporated so the condensed, purified liquor could be captured. Onggi are no longer widely used to create soju as a more efficient and cost-effective modern system developed. Both now and in the past, after the distilling process, the merchant may decide to add water to reduce the alcohol content and make it easier to consume.
The scarcity of rice due to the Korean War led to the government banning the use of rice for things like alcohol as it was needed more for food. Distillers turned to alternative sources, such sweet potato, tapioca, wheat and other grains to make their drinks. It was not until the ban was lifted in 1999 that the use of rice was allowed again. Because the population had become accustomed to the taste of the alternate sources, some manufacturers continued to use them instead rice (or combined them with rice), and some went back to the traditional method. Traditional soju is usually more expensive as it's considered the pure and unadulterated form. To find out what your soju is made with, just check the label.
Since soju has become so popular, if you have not seen it in your neck of the woods, be sure to keep an eye out. You may see it soon and be able to try this alcoholic beverage for yourself!