[WHY] A look through green-tinted glasses at Korea's soju obsession
In Korean dramas when characters celebrate good news or sulk with their friends, there is always one thing in common — green bottles of soju spread across the table.
A recent example was seen in “Work Later, Drink Now" (2021), an original series available on streaming service Tving. In the show, three friends — So-hee, Ji-yeon and Ji-gu — drink soju together after work to celebrate Christmas and to cry about the loss of a family member.
Unsurprisingly, these dramas reflect reality: Soju is the obvious choice when going out for a drink with people in Korea.
The iconic green bottles are a must at hoesik, or after work dinners, while hanging out with friends or to accompany a wide variety of foods.
In 2020, 3.7 trillion won ($3 billion) of soju was sold in Korea, according to the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation. Although the figure was down 0.92 percent due to there being less soju consumed with large gatherings banned during the pandemic, it still made up for 42.1 percent of alcohol sales, followed by beer with 39.7 percent.
Soju's popularity in Korea today is unquestionable, but how did the green-bottled drink become so popular in the first place?
One thing you immediately notice about soju is that most bottles are green. They are shaped the same, and share the identical green color.
Although soju used to be in different colored bottles — brown, white and blue — everything changed when Doosan Beverage released the Green soju in 1994. It chose the color green to advertise that its soju had a clean and mild taste, and it was an immediate hit.
The Green soju had a 30 percent share of the Korean soju market in 1999, and other soju makers quickly jumped on the bandwagon to also sell their products in green bottles.
With everyone making green-bottled soju, companies went a step further and decided to work together to make production efficient.
Seven soju companies — including Lotte Chilsung Beverage, HiteJinro, Daesun Distilling and Hallasan Soju — made a voluntary agreement with each other in 2009 to manufacture soju in green bottles with the same size and design so they can easily be reused. Empty soju bottles are collected at restaurants and by individuals, and can be sold back to soju makers for 30 to 100 won a bottle.
According to the Korea Vessel Recycling Association, 97.9 percent of soju bottles were collected in 2020, and 85 percent of them were cleaned and reused.
However, because the agreement is voluntary and not bound by law, some alcohol makers bottle their soju in different colored bottles.
HiteJinro's Jinro soju, released in 2020, is now put in a transparent blue bottle. The company said it made the decision because the Jinro soju mimics the company's soju sold between the 70s and 80s, which was also in a blue bottle. Similarly, Hallasan Soju is now commonly available in a clear glass bottle as well as the green bottle.
How did soju become so popular?
“When I was a university student, my friends and I would always drink soju and maybe mix it with beer because it’s always the cheapest drink on the menu,” said Shin Ye-ji, a 27-year-old living in Seoul. “Expensive drinks like cocktails would cost way over 10,000 won and craft beers would be 8,000 won or more, and I would have to spend more than double the money if I wanted to get drunk on those drinks.”
One of the reasons soju became so popular is its cheap price.
A bottle of soju sells for less than 2,000 won at discount stores and convenience stores and is sold for around 4,000 won at restaurants and bars.
"In the past, soju was around 1,000 won a bottle and you would have to drink four times the amount of beer and pay more than triple the cost to get drunk," said Hur Won, a bioengineering professor at Kangwon National University that has been teaching alcohol production as an elective course for over 20 years. "Soju isn't as expensive when choosing what to drink on the side with your food."
But looking back at its history, soju wasn’t always that cheap.
It is written in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty that King Seongjong received various complaints from officials regarding soju, saying that soju should be prohibited from being used at parties because of the huge costs. Jibong Yuseol, a record of life during the era of King Gwanghaegun published in 1614, states that nobles are living an extravagant life, drinking soju until they get drunk.
The soju we know today was developed around 1965, when the government prohibited manufacturers from using rice grown in Korea to make the drink. The main reason was the shortage of rice in Korea due to the huge famine of 1963.
Rather than distilling a blend of high-quality rice and grains to make soju with an array of unique scents and tastes, alcohol makers switched to using other starches. Cheaper ones such as sweet potatoes and imported tapioca were widely used, and are still used in most common soju today.
This took away the unique tastes and aroma of soju, creating the harsh, flavorless alcohol we know today. However, some Koreans preferred the change.
“Korea’s economy was rapidly growing during the 70s and 80s, and we had the bbalii bbalii culture,” said Professor Myung Wook, who lectures on Korean traditional liquor in Sejong Cyber University’s barista and sommelier department, using the term to refer to Koreans wanting to do everything fast. “People wanted drinks that could be consumed fast and get them drunk fast, and the change [of how soju is made] fit well with society at that time.”
Is all soju cheap?
Although soju is best known as a cheap way to get drunk, that stereotype is starting to change. So-called premium soju has been gaining popularity over the past few years.
HiteJinro sells two types of premium soju. Ilpoom Jinro is advertised as using a freezing filtration process to remove the alcohol smell, and retails at discount stores for around 12,000 won. Ilpoom Jinro 21 Years is a similar product but aged in an oak barrel for 21 years, retailing for over 160,000 won.
Sales of the two Ilpoom Jinro products jumped 78 percent in 2021, although the total sales figure wasn’t disclosed.
One explanation is the Covid-19 pandemic.
There were less group dinners during the pandemic due to restrictions on private gathering size and business operating hours, which led to less soju consumed at restaurants.
Instead, a lot of people started drinking at home.
In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in 2020, 70 percent of respondents said they had drunk alone during the pandemic, compared to 13.6 percent saying they did before the pandemic. Rather than gloomily taking shots of cheap 2,000-won soju at home, people turned to more expensive soju to enjoy a more luxurious and unique experience.
“Soju such as Andong Soju and Won Soju are different from [the usual] soju we know of, and you can have a distinct flavor developed both from the rice and the aging process,” said Professor Myung. “People enjoy the soju and find their preference, their style, and become willing to pay the extra price of the premium soju.”
Andong Soju is a traditional soju made in Andong, North Gyeongsang, using rice grown in the area and bedrock water drawn from about 300 meters below the surface. Won Soju is another traditional soju, made by rapper Jay Park’s company Won Spirits using totomi rice, a variety grown in Wonju, Gangwon.
Cheap or expensive, how do Koreans consume soju?
Liquor is often divided into two groups: Either ideally consumed before dinner to stimulate people’s appetite or as an after-dinner drink. However, soju is mostly consumed alongside food.
It’s popular to have soju with spicy stews and with sashimi, but a lot of soju lovers drink it with just about any food.
The Korean term banju comes from this culture, referring to having a shot or two of soju with every meal, regardless of whether its lunch or dinner, or what food is served.
"Having drinks like beer with food makes you easily full, and soju is a good choice when having a drink with a hefty meal," said Professor Hur. "Drinks like Whiskey have a strong scent that doesn't go too well with a lot of foods."
Pairing with various foods is relatively easy because of soju’s neutral taste. The drink is bitter with a subtle sweetness, but doesn’t have a strong distinct flavor.
The trend of selling soju with a lower alcohol content also makes it easy to drink during meals.
HiteJinro and Lotte Chilsung Beverage lowered the alcohol content of their soju — Chamisul Fresh and Chum-Churum — from 16.9 percent to 16.5 percent in 2021. Considering Chamisul started as a drink with a 23-percent alcohol content in 2001, it has been quickly become much milder.
“What’s interesting about soju is that the alcohol content has been lowered to around 14 to 17 percent, similar to wine, a drink widely consumed around the world,” said Professor Myung. “If you drink it mixed with beer, then the alcohol content becomes even lower to around 10 percent, which makes it easy to drink with food.”
“No other country in the world drinks distilled alcohol with food."
Is soju only popular in Korea?
In 2020, soju was given the distinct dishonor of being ranked the worst Korean foodstuff in a Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs survey of 8,000 foreigners living abroad, with 14.1 percent of respondents saying soju is what they most dislike.
The list was followed by kimchi, at 9.5 percent.
But in a similar survey last year, soju disappeared from the list. The ministry only discloses the top three disliked foods, which were samgyetang (ginseng and chicken soup) with 10.5 percent, budae jjigae (spicy stew) with 10.1 percent and kimchi, at 10.1 percent.
Some say soju was able to quickly bounce back due the popularity of Korean culture.
“A lot of foreigners now think of Korean culture as hip and trendy due to Korean media becoming popular,” said Professor Myung. “They think soju’s symbolic green bottle is unique and are interested in how to make somaek [a mix of soju and beer].”
“Popular Korean singers such as Blackpink advertise soju, adding to its popularity.”
For people abroad, fruit-flavored soju is driving the trend.
According to Korea Customs Service, $69.5 million of fruit-flavored soju was exported between January and the end of October last year. That’s up 94.2 percent on year, and even surpasses the $68 million won of flavorless soju.
HiteJinro has been exporting fruit-flavored soju to 80 countries since 2016, with its Jinro Grapefruit and Jinro Strawberry varieties proving especially popular. Lotte Chilsung Beverage exports various fruit-flavored soju as well. It sells Chum-Churum Yogurt and Apple Mango exclusively abroad, with the apple mango flavor made due to requests from overseas customers.
BY LEE TAE-HEE [email@example.com]