What do you tend to rely on when you feel down? Often you will hear many Koreans say, “Let’s go for a shot of soju together,” whenever they feel blue. Soju has been part of Korean society since being introduced by the Mongolians in the 13th century. Today, along with Hallyu, The Korean Wave, soju has gained attention from outside the country as one aspect of Korean culture that Koreans take for granted.
The soju that some Koreans and international residents drink today is different from what people had in the past. Up until the Joseon dynasty, the king and aristocrats of the era enjoyed this traditional drink. It was made by means of traditional rice distillation and of other crops, thus, it was regarded as a valuable drink, and was sometimes used for medical treatment due to its high alcohol content. This unique method of producing alcohol is part of the heritage passed down by wise Korean ancestors.
The period in the 1960s and 1970s in Korea can be regarded as “The era of soju reformation.” By the year 1965, soju experienced a major overturn of its history. During the Park Jung-hee regime, the enforcement of the “Grain Management Act” empowered the government and gave it the right to control soju’s production. Hence rice could no longer be used as an ingredient of soju and it was replaced by cheaper imported ingredients, such as sweet potato, golden syrup and tapioca, which reduced the price at the same time.
Machine-based soju manufacturing companies introduced new ways of producing soju. Instead of distillation, the alcohol extracted from various ingredients was diluted. The extracted alcohol has a concentration of around 85 to 95 percent ethanol, and it was then diluted with water to reduce it to 20 to 35 percent. In order to eliminate bitterness and the distinct smell of the ethanol content, a few additives such as sugar and spices were, and still are, added to the volume. Today’s diluted soju does not have noticeable characteristics itself, therefore the taste and the mildness are mostly dependent on the extra ingredients added to the mixture.
There are signature types of soju for all eight provinces in the Korean peninsula. 참이슬 (Chamisul) for Seoul, 좋은데이 (Joen Day) and C1 for Busan, and 잎새주 (Ipsaeju) for Gwangju and Jeonnam region, represent their respective regions. Once there were 254 soju manufacturers, but in 1977, they were merged into 10 major manufacturing factories in each province. The government only allowed one manufacturing company per province, which caused more than half of people’s soju consumption to consist entirely of soju made from within these residents’ region, to promote the development of each region’s soju. However in 1996, the law was abolished, and it opened up competition among the 10 manufacturers nationwide.
The high alcohol content of soju attracted only men before the millennium. Hence the most popular female celebrity of the time would always appear on soju advertisements and posters to target men. However, after the IMF Crisis in the late 1990s, soju manufacturers reduced the amount of ethanol in soju to attract more women and increase sales. Soju became a drink for all Koreans and it led to research and development introducing more varieties of low alcohol content soju, including fruit flavors, both mild and intense.
Ever since soju was introduced to the public, glasses of soju have always been on the table, whether for sadness or happiness. Serving as a stimulus for bringing up stories at the table, a bottle of soju will continue to contain bittersweet stories of joy and sorrow of the Koreans, and represent Korea.