In praise of sojuWI MOON-HEE
The author is a national news 2 team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The meaning of “so” in the Korean liquor soju means “setting on fire.” Soju is a type of distilled liquor made by boiling.
What is being boiled then? Traditional distilled soju is made from the base of cooked sweet rice and malt. Once the base becomes fermented, it is filtered within the jar. Soju is collected drop by drop.
In Andong, North Gyeongsang, soju is made by boiling cheongju — a clear, refined rice wine of Korean origin. The Ilyeobpyeonju soju made at the head family of Lee Hyun-bo (1467-1555), a scholar in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and the writer of “Eobuga” — a set of lovely poems about fishermen — requires five bottles of cheongju to produce one bottle of soju.
As grains are needed in the process of fermentation and distilling of soju, a ban on drinking soju was often ordered by the court during the Joseon period. Drinking was banned for 40 years in the 52 years of King Yeongjo’s reign.
Diluted soju first appeared in 1965, made by burning jujeong, which refers to fermented starch or sugar liquid. Because of the food shortage after the 1950-53 Korean War, the government banned production of purely grain-based alcoholic beverages through the law.
As diluted soju can be mass-produced, soju became widely popular. Actor Choi Bool-am, 81, who appeared on KBS Documentary “Koreans’ Drinking Table,” has his own interpretation of “so.” “I have many painful stories. I would run to a bar after acting. It felt as if the fire burning in my heart was extinguished.” He was referring to the time when he starred in “The Chief Investigator,” a legendary crime series on MBC aired from 1971 to 1989.
As soju is generally recognized as a drink for the working-class people, producers chose to lower the alcohol proof to cut costs rather than raising the price. The alcohol proof of diluted soju can be adjusted by adding water. As water content increases for the same amount of alcohol, the cost can be lowered. According to the liquor industry, the Korea Ethanol Supplies Company lifted the price of ethanol by 7.8 percent from Feb. 4. As the price of ethanol went up, it is only a matter of time until soju prices go up. So, low alcohol-proof liquor may become a trend again.
Active poet Ahn Do-hyun wrote a two-line poem titled “Way Back From Work” in 1997 about yearning for consolation from a tiring life. “What if it weren’t for pork belly with a glass of soju and if they hadn’t existed.” No matter how poor you are, what fun do you have for a life without a glass of soju to calm your burning heart?