Unlike many Brits who become teachers in Korea, I hadn’t heard of, let alone tried soju before I got to Korea.
My first experience of it was after my first week of teaching. It had been a long, eventful week, so having a bit of a drink was inevitable. Our temporary co-teachers (essentially our bosses) had offered to take us out to celebrate, and we did so in a quintessentially Korean manner.
Over a huge dinner, I had my first try of soju. It had a strong, chemical, and almost medical taste, which was hard to take on its own. We also had a glass of beer each, and I mainly used this to take away the taste of the soju at each sip. Needless to say, this mix resulted in tipsiness, and in no time I was more than ready to make my first visit to a norebang.
Soju was not sold in our local norebang, in fact I got the impression it was forbidden, however our superiors encouraged us to bring a bottle in and drink to our hearts’ content as we sang away.
Once in the singing room, the soju suddenly seemed to go down a lot easier. It wasn’t as strong as vodka, yet had more of an edge than wine, and there was no need for a mixer. “Soju is the dream!” we exclaimed throughout the evening of joy and escapism.
The next morning, however, we realised that soju was certainly not the dream. The hangover was tremendous, and the potent smell of soju lingered. We started to wonder …”what was so good about soju again?”
After a while, I realised that soju’s strong taste could easily be masked with orange juice, or ordered in bars as “fruit soju”. Fruit soju consists of a split fruit such as pineapple or melon filled with a soju / juice mix. This is an interesting bar order and pretty fun, but I found the stuff to be too sickly sweet to drink more than a glass or so of at a time. It’s a winner with lovers of alco-pops,though.
Another way to enjoy soju is in shots. I did have a mishap with this when out with Korean friends once, though, as after a toast I emptied my small glass, whilst everyone else took the smallest of sips. This was extremely embarrassing, although possibly the best method of drinking soju!
I now drink it for nostalgia’s sake. I was completely shocked when I ordered my first bottle of soju in London (at Assadal, Holborn), and was charged £15 (in Korea, soju is usually cheaper than water, working out at about 50p a bottle in the supermarket, and under £4 in a restaurant), but for some reason there is no drinking like soju drinking. It will continue to complement my trips to the norebang, to accompany delicious meals, and to be the harbinger of less-great mornings.
Random soju facts:
- I could never find a decisive answer as to what soju is actually made of. The debate seems to be between rice, some kind of root vegetable (I’m guessing large radish), or a chemical.
- Completely unrelatedly, I used some old, unfinished soju to clean my bath, and found it to work wonders.
- Be careful when you arrive in Korea, especially if you can’t read Hangul- soju bottles are green, water bottles are blue.
- Teenagers in Korea love “so-maek”: a cocktail of half beer, half soju.
- Soju is cleverly marketed by the “soju girl”; a scantily-clad hot female celebrity (whoever is most poplular at the time), who is strangely refreshed and unphased by the alcoholic elixir.