As the distilled spirit of choice in South Korea, soju has quickly gained popularity alongside the country’s cultural exports. No stranger to the different spirits of the world, especially those in Asia, Yardbird beverage director, and Sake Samurai Elliot Faber knows a thing or two about soju and its Japanese cousin, shochu. We sat down with him in Seoul to hear the differences and similarities between the two spirits in terms of their production, consumption, and culture.
This story is part of an ongoing series about MAEKAN’s work with the RYSE hotel in the Hongdae neighborhood in Seoul. This time, Elliot and the Yardbird crew were in town in Seoul to present a unique pop-up event that offered multiple points of intersection between drinking culture, Japanese and Korean spirits, and naturally the community, that RYSE is building. If you find yourself in the area, stop by the hotel and the MAEKAN Artist suite perched at the top of the building.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Nate: Despite sharing similar sounding names, shochu and soju, the respective Japanese and Korean names for varieties of distilled spirits, actually have a unique and rich histories.
On a recent afternoon in Seoul at RYSE hotel, Sake Samurai, and beverage director at Yardbird, Elliott Faber sat down with us to explain the differences between the two cultural beverage staples and how they both came to be. Elliott and the Yardbird crew were in town in Seoul to present a unique pop-up event that offered multiple points of intersection between drinking culture, Japanese and Korean spirits, and naturally, the community RYSE Hotel is building. If you’re ever in Seoul, stop by RYSE and check out the vibrant Hongdae neighborhood and the MAEKAN Artist Suite perched at the top of the hotel. So sit back, pour yourself a drink, and listen in.
Elliot: My name is Elliott Faber and I work in the beverage industry in Hong Kong promoting mostly Japanese culture to the world. I’m the beverage director for Yardbird and Ronin restaurants in Hong Kong as well as the co-founder of Sake Central. It’s a project that promotes sake culture around the world, and I’m involved with both the export, distribution, and education of all things Japanese.
Nate: Despite the title of Sake Samurai, his knowledge extends beyond rice wine in the Japanese context to include Western grape wines and many other Asian spirits like soju. Elliot explains the differences between the close cousins.
Elliot: The meaning of shochu as the same as the Koreans soju translating into “burnt liquor,” which is a reference to the distillation process involved in the quality versions of the spirit. Shochu follows a number of regulations and processes that are regulated by the World Trade Organization and there’s a sense of control from the region. Soju has not developed to that level yet and as such, there is more of a vague definition to the process. Both soju and shochu have varying degrees of quality. But shochu is more highly regulated. Shochu and soju are both using the mold that is called Koji. Koji mold is instrumental in converting starches into soluble fermentable sugars for fermentation to produce alcohol. At that point, distillation is done to concentrate the alcohol and produce a spirit. So while this process is used in the initial parts of production and it’s the same for shochu and soju, soju will use often other ingredients such as additives maybe everything from sugars and salts to MSG, whereas shochu even at the most commercial stage still follows more regulation. If you ask what is the most common thread connecting shochu and soju, they are both using Koji mold in this process to convert starch into fermentable, soluble sugar.
Nate: But despite sharing the same mold culture and the same etymological roots, Elliot points out an important distinction in how the two spirits are defined and recognized today.
Elliot: One big difference between soju and shochu is that while soju will be made from a myriad of ingredients and premium soju would be made purely from rice, Japanese shochu is made and defined by the main ingredient of the fermentation and distillation. So for example, soju has no definition of the main ingredient unless maybe it’s rice, or they would say it’s a mix of grains. Quality shochu made in Japan will list the key ingredient: sweet potato, soba, rice, or even barley, and wheat.
Nate: So why is there such a huge diversity in shochu varieties and styles while soju is still so strongly associated with rice. In many ways, soju, keeps it old school as Elliot explains.
Elliot: Soju is actually an older beverage than Japanese shochu because the distillation methods actually originated on the mainland of Asia, coming from the Middle East. Koreans developed distillation and later helped to teach the Japanese, so soju is a more prehistoric version, but nowadays after times of war and of poverty, the production of soju is more mass market in most cases. So there are two main kinds of soju and the one that has consumed the most is a very low-grade unregulated product that has both fermented and distilled product inside as well as other unregulated sugars and additives. There is a cultural exchange between shochu and soju, but nowadays people don’t quite see a connection because of the work that the Japanese have done to define the product. The main difference is the rigorous regulation that Japanese shochu follows whereas Korean soju does not quite have the appellation control or the process regulations that Japanese shochu has. Korea has a few very high-quality soju producers, but they work alone and they have to not represent a category but rather represent their own product and their own brand, whereas shochu makers can represent an entire style and movement.
Nate: While historically soju hasn’t quite enjoyed the same depth as shochu in terms of diversity, rice-based soju is still the hometown favorite in South Korea with the most popular variety being the Chamisul brand manufactured by HiteJinro, which like many mass-produced soju, comes in a familiar green bottle.
Elliot: The culture behind the green bottle, or as the Koreans call “that soju,” is more of a mass consumption and even to be put inside beer and kind of like a boilermaker, I suppose, and enjoyed in mass quantity and volume. I think that that’s a great way to enjoy it as well, but it’s definitely a lot less respect for the artisan. And you see in Japan with shochu, a lot more consumption of shochu in its element maybe with some warm water or just with ice or mizuwari—”to cut with water”—and you also see shochu cocktails, a much larger variety than you see for soju cocktails. So even Japanese marketing for shochu in terms of canned and premade shochu cocktails and products is a lot further along than soju.
Nate: Because of the nature of his work. Elliot It’s certainly exposed to many different ways to enjoy the various spirits found in Asia, but that doesn’t mean he’s not down to enjoy soju just like everyone else does.
Elliot: I personally haven’t experienced the terrible soju hangover before, so I don’t mind drinking even the green bottle, the cheaper varieties of soju with my beer or even enjoying it on its own in a casual way, but like with all of my alcohol, I do prefer to enjoy the higher-quality premium pure rice distilled soju and I like to drink that on the rocks or maybe even with water the same way I would enjoy Japanese shochu.
Nate: Still, while it’s hard for many people to shake soju’s association with the iconic green bottle, Elliot wants people to know there’s so much more soju out there to be seen and enjoyed. You just need to know what to look for.
Elliot: To enjoy soju, there are a couple of different ways. The first and easiest one is to find a quality producer who is creating a pure product. Look for the clarity and the purity of the taste. Look for the richness of the alcohol itself rather than any synthetic cloying sugars or other synthetic ingredients. To enjoy shochu, it’s the same. The best and most famous example is a producer called Hwayo who makes their soju only out of rice, and it’s completely pure distilled only from Koji and the rice and pure water and some aging in clay ceramic pots and vessels. The product is best in cocktails or even consumed on the rocks or neat.
Nate: As Korea’s culture becomes more and more popular and more people become exposed to soju, Elliot believes there’s a golden opportunity here for the spirit to steal some of the limelight. It just needs the right support.
Elliot: The category of soju does have a chance to grow and become more of an artisanal product. But soju needs more recognition for the people who are really making the pure products. One thing is for sure because of the price and the ease of making large quantities, shochu and soju are both very popular for younger audiences. Korean marketing agencies and manufacturers of soju have an opportunity to make a premium product outside of the standard and at this point, maybe generic green bottle, and they have an opportunity to create more variety and a little more focus on the production area and what might make different soldiers separate from their competitors and neighbors.
Nate: We left off by asking Elliott how people want to get more in just so you could educate themselves about the spirit, and he gave us a little bit of homework.
Elliot: To learn about soju and the potential of Korea’s great national beverage, you should try to find one of the cheapest bottles of soju possible in the green bottle and then you should compare it to more quality producers such as Hwayo. You should take them side by side and notice the differences in the clarity of the product. It’s the same as approaching a wine, and drinking a quality wine from a smaller area versus a mass-produced wine from a larger production to enjoy shochu. It’s the same given the popularity of soju as being the most consumed beverage on the planet. And given the fact that shochu is the most consumed alcohol in Japan, the opportunity is there for the quality to improve as long as people are willing to embrace awareness and understand that there are better versions of soju in Korea just as there are better versions of shochu in Japan. And the products should not be considered to be the same and even within the country, it’s important to know that there’s a lot of diversity.