Soju (소주) is a distilled beverage native to Korea. Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter due to the sugars added in the manufacturing process, and more commonly consumed neat.
Most brands of modern soju are made in South Korea. Though traditionally made from rice, most major brands supplement or even replace the rice with other starches such as potato, wheat, barley, sweet potato, or tapioca. Soju is clear in colour and typically varies in alcohol content from about 20% to about 45% alcohol by volume, with 20% ABV being most common. It is widely consumed, in part, because of its relatively low price in Korea. A typical 300mL bottle of soju costs the consumer 1,000 to 3,000 South Korean Won (roughly $1 to $3 United States Dollars.)
Soju is usually drunk in group gatherings while eating, unmixed and portioned into individual shot glasses. It is against traditional custom in Korea to fill one’s own glass. Instead, it must be filled by someone else at the table. This promotes a spirit of thoughtfulness and camaraderie.
In Korean culture, using two hands to offer and accept items is considered an act of respect. Accordingly, if one’s glass is going to be filled by a superior, one should hold the glass with both hands. Similarly, when pouring soju for an elder, one holds the bottle with both hands.
To pour a drink, hold the bottle in the right hand with the left hand touching the right forearm or elbow; this peculiar arm position originated from the practice of holding back the sleeve of the hanbok so that it wouldn’t touch the table or the food.
Similarly, when receiving a drink, rest the glass in the left palm and hold it with the right hand, perhaps bowing the head slightly to show additional respect. You can also hold the glass using the same hand positions as when pouring. Pouring and receiving with just the right hand by a senior, or between equals, is common in normal situations.
Koreans often say “one shot”, a challenge to everyone in the group to down their glass in one gulp.
A glass should not be refilled unless completely empty and should be promptly refilled once empty; it is considered rude to not fill someone else’s glass when empty.
Some special rules apply when drinking with someone of much higher status, i.e. greater age or rank. When drinking in front of elders (people older than you), the junior is expected to turn away from the elder first. Drinking the shot while directly facing the elder is considered disrespectful. However in recent years, the prevalent practice has been to drink the shot without turning away from the elder (but still using both hands to drink), as most Koreans view the practice as archaic and a detriment to camaraderie, irrespective of the age groups involved.
On occasions, an elder gives an empty soju shot glass (usually his/hers) to an equal or junior. A junior may also offer an empty glass to a senior after they have established a closer relationship.
Giving the glass implies that the person is going to fill it and wants the receiver to drink it. It is not obligatory to finish the drink immediately, but it is impolite to place the glass on the table without at least pretending to drink from it.
After finishing the entire glass, it should be returned and refilled. It is not necessary to return it immediately, but holding it for a long time is considered rude, as it deprives the giver of his glass.
Among friends of equal social status, it is not necessary to use both hands while pouring or receiving a drink, but may be done out of habit or politeness, or if the situation is considered a particularly formal one.
Although beer, whiskey, and wine have been gaining popularity in recent years, soju remains one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Korea because of its ready availability and relatively low price. More than 3 billion bottles were consumed in South Korea in 2004. In 2006, it was estimated that the average adult Korean (older than 20) had consumed 90 bottles of soju during that year.
Despite tradition, soju is not always consumed in unmixed form. Mixing soju and beer is called somaek, a portmanteau of the words soju and maekju (맥주 – beer). Flavored soju is also available. A poktanju consists of a shot glass of soju dropped into a pint of draft beer (like a boilermaker or Irish Car Bomb) and is drunk quickly. The reverse equivalent, a shot glass of draft beer dropped into a pint of soju, is called soju poktanju (lit: “soju bomb drink”). This is very similar to the Japanese Sake bomb.
Going out there are good odds that soju will be ordered for the table as it is popular with most Koreans. I am still learning the customs to proper pouring but that’s only a concern when out with other Koreans, when its just me and the other foreign teachers we just act like Americans. It’s crazy how cheap it is and you don’t need a lot when you do drink it. After a night out you can easily walk away with only spending $3 – $4.