The world’s best-selling liquor is sold in vaguely medicinal 12-ounce green bottles, each costing a buck and change at convenience stores in South Korea. Korean soju, like Japanese sake, is distilled from rice. But if sake and its mystical variations are akin to IPA beers, then soju is PBR — bland, egalitarian, and reassuringly predictable.
Like military conscription or naked jaunts to a 24-hour spa, the shared consumption of soju is an unavoidable ritual that bonds Koreans of all backgrounds. As with many things Korean, the comfort lies in the conformity. Soju is served chilled, almost always with food, and imbibed in shot glasses. Koreans on average claim to drink six shots of soju in one sitting (a very conservative estimate). At around 20 percent alcohol content, depending on the brand, soju is potent enough to make its presence felt after a couple of shots, but not so strong as to deter overconsumption. It is the quintessential “sneak up on you” spirit, deteriorating your faculties by accumulation rather than a killer headshot. You’re all good — and then you’re not.
Soju has been consumed in Korea since the Mongols introduced it to the peninsula in the 13th century. Presumably, it tasted like crap back then, too. In fact, nobody really drinks soju for its taste, which can generously be likened to diluted vodka (though I’ve heard it compared to watery rubbing alcohol). To make it more palatable to less aggressive drinkers, Korean bars have long offered variations to standard soju. In the ’90s, there were popular “remix” soju flavors incorporating lemon and cherry syrups, followed by the rise of fresh-fruit soju cocktails in the ’00s. But drinking these homemade versions compromised soju’s traditional charms — the satisfying twist-off of the wire cap, the filling and refilling of shot glasses, the gradual collection of empty green bottles on your table.
Then last March came a game changer. Lotte Chilsung Beverage, maker of the popular Chum Churum brand, introduced an official “soonhari” (or “soft”) citron soju — same green bottle (with a yellow cap), slightly less alcohol (roughly 14 percent), and much, much sweeter flavor. It was an instant hit: Lotte sold 1.3 million bottles of citron soju in its first month on shelves, and reached 10 million sold a month later. To satisfy demand, stores began limiting how many bottles a customer could buy.
Predictably, other soju brands released their own “mixju” fruit flavors: blueberry, pomegranate, and grapefruit. Lotte debuted a peach edition. There are now more than 20 fruit-flavored types of soju on the market. “The product has an especially strong appeal to women who love to drink cocktail-style, light alcoholic beverages,” a Lotte spokesman told The Korea Times last summer. (Not mentioned, unsurprisingly: the legions of men who prefer it, too.) By June of last year, Lotte was reportedly selling 170,000 bottles of flavored soju per day in Korea.
The next stop? America, of course.
For all of its popularity in Asia, as of last year only 5 percent of soju’s global sales were in the U.S., where you need to live near a Korean business to purchase it. Of course, it wasn’t too long ago that the same could be said of kimchi or sheet masks. Korea is having a bit of a cultural moment, and Lotte and its competitors are hoping — mostly through Korean American word of mouth (ahem) as opposed to advertising — that it extends to their fruit liquor.
Near the start of spring, flavored soju arrived in the two American metro areas with the largest Korean populations, NYC and L.A. “We sell a fuck ton of soju,” says Eric Leiser, owner of Leiser’s Liquor, which services the Korean enclave of Flushing, Queens. Since his store began stocking the sweet stuff (priced, like regular soju, at less than $4 per standard-sized bottle), Leiser says its popularity has risen steadily. “It’s the millennials,” he says. Still, Leiser estimates that his soju sales are to “99 percent Korean people.”
Those numbers may begin to shift soon, though. Earlier this month, Buzzfeed posted a video titled “Americans Try Flavored Soju,” in which taste testers giddily compared the mouthfeel of various fruit sojus to “melted popsicle concentrate” and “melted Starburst” (so much for watery rubbing alcohol, eh?). In multiple informal tasting sessions of flavored soju with my own friends this past summer, the most oft-used descriptor was “dangerous.” Making relatively hard alcohol taste essentially like candy recalls the “liquid crack” Cisco scare (20 percent alcohol content) of the early ’90s, and the Four Loko (14 percent) frenzy of the following decade (now big in China!). Alcohol rookies will inevitably gravitate toward what goes down easiest — shout-out to Zima and Boone’s Farm — but when the intensity of your intoxication is masked by a sugar rush, the end result can range from “Ha ha, remember that time in high school” to far more severe consequences.
No need for alarm … yet. For a product to become controversial, it must first be widely consumed. An overseas sales rep for Lotte told me via email that the company does eventually plan to target non-Korean-heavy markets. An apple version, basically spiked Martinelli’s, is coming next. If any fruit soju reaches your town (and you are of legal drinking age), my advice to first-timers is this: Savor the saccharine essence of each flavored shot. Marvel at how smoothly it spills down the chute. Contemplate whether the path to bad decisions should taste this good. Now smile as the shots — two, three, eight, 12 — keep coming.
Then brace yourself for a brutal hangover.