soju varieties

Soju Varieties- Some of the Most Popular

Korea has many types and soju varieties, each with unique flavours and characteristics. With so many available brands, it is nearly impossible for someone new to this market to choose which one to buy. Popular products such as Chum Churum and Chamisul sell millions of bottles yearly. The producers always develop new products, claiming “mine is the best,” and there is no easy way to navigate the myriad options.

Perhaps the easier way to differentiate and narrow our choice is by looking at how soju is made; the distillation process usually tells us what to expect from the final product, as it yields two completely different drinks.

  • The distilled one uses a single pot still or low-pressure vacuum distillation, preserving most of the fermentation base flavours.
  • The diluted soju is a product of continuous column distillation – a very efficient process of removing impurities but also striping most of the underlying flavours, which results in almost tasteless ethyl alcohol, which then needs to be diluted and flavouring agents (peach, grapefruit and green grapes) or sweetener added to it.

Here’s a look at some of the most common types of soju you may come across as you explore this exciting, exotic drink. 

The most common base for soju distillation is rice, but other grains, such as barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or corn, are also used.

Distilled Soju

Sungok Soju is a form of soju, a distilled spirit made only from grains and contains no additional ingredients that add additional taste or aroma except water.1

Rice Soju

Most distilled soju sold commercially in Korea or recorded in ancient recipes belongs to rice soju, the most common form of distilled soju. 2

  • Samhae Soju ( Seoul )
    • Soju distilled from Samhae Ju. During the lifetime of Artisan, Kim Taek-sang continued his family’s legacy of brewing the capital’s storied Samhaeju, a Korean alcoholic beverage whose history goes as far back as the Goryeo Kingdom. Silver was used as a material for the pot in which Samhae liquor was distilled using sojugori. Samhae Soju and the original Samhae Gwiju are distilled three times and have an alcohol content of 71.2 degrees. The base alcohol is made with rice, nuruk, and water only. The mixture is brewed in 3 different stages. This slow and long fermentation process takes approximately 120 days. The base is distilled in a traditional pot, still to 45% abv.

  • Andong Soju ( Andong City )
    • Master Andong Soju – Made by Master Park Jae-seo (Korea Food Master No. 4). While Master Cho Ok-hwa’s Andong Soju is more faithful to the traditional taste, Master Park Jae-seo’s Andong Soju can be said to have been modernized by reducing the malty flavour and harsh taste. Still, I can feel the scent of Gokju.
    • Folk Andong Soju is a liquor made by master Cho Ok-hwa (Korea Food Master No. 20) and currently being made by his son Kim Yeon-bak after he died in 2020. It maintains the characteristics of traditional soju, with a malty flavour and a somewhat harsh taste.

  • Namhansanseong Soju 
    • A folk liquor was handed down from Namhansanseong Fortress. Namhansanseong Fortress was a place that flourished during King Sukjong’s reign to the point of being called ‘small Seoul.’ Namhansanseong Fortress was rich near Seoul and was widely used until the late Joseon Dynasty.
  • Sulseam Mir Soju
    • Hails from Korea’s Gyeonggi province ( Yongin City ) and is among the country’s highest-regarded soju by aficionados. Made only from rice, a starter puck (known as nuruk), and water.3 Won the Presidential Award at the 2018 Korean Wine Competition.

  • Hanju ( Anseong City )

  • Slow Village Soju ( Gochang-gun ) – Manufactured by Baesang-myeon Liquor.

  • Mowol Lo , Mowol Inn ( Wonju City )
    • It was manufactured in Mowol. Mowol Inn won the President’s Award at the 2020 Woori Liquor Competition.

  • Ido ( Cheongju City )
    • Won the grand prize at the 2016 Korean Liquor Competition. It is made using only 100% organic rice.

  • Pungjeong Sagye Dong ( Cheongju City )

  • Tokki Soju
    • Brandon Cook created one of America’s first ventures into the soju market. It started in New York in 2016 and moved to Chungju City, Chungcheongbuk-do in 2020. It is a strictly distilled soju made using traditional Korean techniques.
    • In Korean, Tokki pronounced ‘tock-ee,’ meaning rabbit, is a Korean soju distilled from fermented glutinous rice.

  • Khee Soju
    • KHEE is a pure, distilled liquor made from the finest rice and water and contains no artificial additives. 

  • Hwayo
    • Hwayo is distilled using 100% Korean rice and natural rock water collected from 150 meters underground.

  • Hwabaek, Fire Soju ( Seocheon-gun )
    •  A product manufactured by Kangsan Brewery, which produces Hansan Sogokju 25%. Hwabaek is manufactured by lowering the alcohol content from 41% ABV.

  • Wonju ( Wonju City ) – This is a soju released by singer Jay Park in 2022.

  • Juhyang ( Chungju-si ) – Juhyang is a premium distilled soju aged six months. It is aged in a special pottery jar in self-made, unglazed jars dedicated solely to aging the liquor and produced by DAMEUL DISTILLERY, Seoul, Korea—alcohol: 25%.

  • Baekje Soju ( Buan-gun )

  • Wolgohae, Jeoksongja ( Hamyang-gun )
    • Both are distilled from Oyangju. Wolgohae is distilled once, and Jeoksongja is distilled twice, making soju with an alcohol content of 42% and 53/72%, respectively. Jeoksongja 72 has a slightly higher alcohol content than Samhae Guwiju, making it the highest alcoholic beverage among distilled soju on the market as of November 2023.

Barley Soju

Barley soju shares many similarities with whiskey; therefore, an ideal way to explain soju is as a similar version of whiskey.4

  • Okroju ( Ansan City )- from Gyeonggi Province, originated in Hanyang (currently Seoul) during the late Joseon dynasty.
  • Byeongyeong Soju ( Gangjin-gun ) – Kim Gyeon-sik, designated as a Korean grandmaster, has been making Byeongyeong Soju for over 60 years. Waxy barley produced in Gangjin is fermented using a nuruk, and the liquid is aged for three weeks. Byeongyeong Soju received the grand prize in the Korean Sool Competition 2022 distilled spirits category.5
  • Golden Barley Soju and ‘Black Label’ 40 – (produced by Hwanggeum Bori) – 100% sustainably grown heirloom Golden barley. It has a smooth texture and fragrant stone fruit notes.

Sorghum Soju

It is a soju made by distilling alcohol from sorghum and malt into base liquor.6

  • Munbae Liquor ( Pyongyang City )
    • It is produced at Munbae Liquor Brewery. It has a pear scent. It has a crystal clear colour, sweet aroma, and clean taste without additives. The alcohol content is 40 degrees.
  • Millet Soju (GosoriSul) – Jeju City 
    • It is made by distilling alcohol using millet and nuruk as an ingredient.

Sweet Potato Soju

  • Ryeo ( Yeoju-si ) – Produced by Kooksoondang. There are two versions: ‘Distilled Soju,’ made by mixing sweet potatoes and rice, and ‘Sweet Potato Distilled Soju,’ made only with sweet potatoes.7
  • White Roe ( Daegu Metropolitan City ) – Produced by Geumbokju. 41 degrees alcohol.

Wheat Soju

  • Jinmaek Soju ( Andong City )8
    • Premium soju is made from organic wheat.

Buckwheat Soju

Buckwheat soju is made by distilling alcohol using buckwheat and koji as ingredients.9

  • Buckwheat Dew (Jeju City) – Manufactured by Suldogaga Jeju Badang.
  • Buckwheat (Hongcheon-gun) – Manufactured by Duru Brewery using Hongcheon rice and Hongcheon buckwheat as raw materials.
  • Burnt Buckwheat 40 (Injegun) – Manufactured by Breeze & Stream. For the first time in Korea, roasted buckwheat was used. It won a gold medal at the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Fair.

Corn Soju

It is made by distilling alcohol using corn and nuruk into base liquor.10


North Korean Soju

Many of the soju produced in North Korea have a high alcohol content that is close to 40 percent. Of course, there is not only high-alcohol liquor but also low-alcohol soju that has been diluted with water to lower the alcohol content.

However, since it is difficult to know precisely the production method in North Korea, the classification is ambiguous. First of all, it appears to be mostly distilled soju.

There are two main types of soju produced in North Korea.[efn_]https://namu.wiki/w/%EB%B6%81%ED%95%9C[/efn_note]

  • Taedong River Food Factory’ Pyongyang Ju (30-40 degrees)
  • Taedong River Food Factory’ Pyongyang Soju (25 degrees)

Corn (corn) and rice are the main raw materials. Pyongyang liquor is popular for its unique cleanliness, excellent aroma, and rich taste. In 2010, it was registered as ‘February 2nd Product’, a name given to excellent-quality products in North Korea. 2014, it received the ‘December 15 Quality Medal,’ the highest quality medal. 

In the case of Pyongyang soju, which has a low alcohol content, it is sold in the same bottle as the South’s diluted soju and was also imported and sold when inter-Korean relations were good in the late 1990s. Despite the crude-looking packaging, this product was distilled soju, had an excellent grainy flavour, and could please drinkers at a low price that could be considered diluted soju.


Diluted Soju Brands

Soju became a mainstream liquor in Korea in the mid-1970s. With the emergence of the diluted version, regional soju brands became dominant players in their respective areas: Jinro in Seoul, Charm in Daegu, and Bohae in Gwangju. The consumption of unrefined wine (makgeolli) and especially distilled soju dropped sharply as diluted soju became the most popular liquor in the 1980s and best-selling in Korea and the world.

It is produced by the fermentation of sugars from various sources, including barley, maize, potato, rice, sweet potato, tapioca (dangmil in Korean), and wheat, by using the continuous distillation method; distillation columns (three or more) with multiple stages are used to remove impurities by continuously injecting and heating the fermented beverage.

The diluted soju produced by the continuous distillation method does not undergo long aging because the resulting beverage lacks impurities and flavour, which can be considered an advantage (low cost). The diluting of the purified neutral alcohol produced by continuous distillation is similar to vodka production.

In 2020 alone, HITEJINRO sold around 95.3 million soju cases, almost threefold the amount sold by the world’s No. 2 distilled spirit brand, the Philippines’ Ginebra, which sold about 31.2 million cases last year.

Korea’s most recognizable soju brands are Chamisul and Chum Churum, from Seoul and Gangwon Province. However, there are numerous regional brands, all with distinctive tastes.

In the past, the law mandated that alcohol companies were allowed to produce soju in only one city or province and had to sell at least half their stock there. This meant that it was difficult for a company based in a particular city to sell its products in another part of the country. 
The different regional soju brands in Korea have each produced their version, which reflects the region’s unique characteristics.

Most notably, the Korean government introduced two policies to regulate the industry during the 1970s. It mandated and forcibly consolidated the breweries into one for each province. Small breweries were merged, and the industry was entirely reorganized.
By consolidating various local soju producers and designation of only one firm as the local soju producer per region, the government restricted the licenses to produce soju and required soju producers to notify the National Tax Service before they increased prices.

The local soju distributors in each regional market needed to purchase more than 50% of soju from the designated local firm in each market. The other policy was the input allocation policy, which allocated the soju alcohol base to soju companies based on their national market shares in the previous year.11
These policies intended to protect local firms and discourage excessive competition but obliged consumers in each regional market to purchase local brands. As a result, the local designated firms became dominant in their regional markets.12

This meant that it was difficult for a company based in a particular city to sell its products in another part of the country. 


The different regional soju brands in Korea each produced their own version, which reflected the region’s unique characteristics.

Dominant Provincial Soju Brands

Korean Soju Provincial producers

The deregulation of this segmented soju policy didn’t happen till the early 1980s.

The mandatory local soju purchase policy was first alleviated in 1982 when the government ordered that this policy not be applied to the three largest firms whose national market shares exceeded 10%. In January 1990, the government required local distributors to purchase more than 40% of soju from the locally designated firms and excluded two more companies whose national market shares were above 7%. In January 1991, the required purchase percentage was lowered to 30%, excluding two more firms with national market shares above 5%.

Despite the deregulation, most local companies maintained relatively high market shares in their regional markets, ranging over 50% in some markets. Nonetheless, their local market shares continued to decline between 1993 and 1995, as Jinro’s market shares in most regional markets started to increase during this period. As a result, local soju companies lobbied to reintroduce the protection policies, and the National Assembly of South Korea finally reintroduced the mandatory local soju purchase policy into the alcohol tax law in October 1995.
Due to this policy, local companies’ market shares reached above 50% during 1996. However, soju distributors challenged the policy, and the Supreme Court of Korea eventually decided the case in late 1996. The Supreme Court ruled this policy unconstitutional and abolished it in December 1996.

These deregulatory changes lowered barriers to entry and intensified the degree of competition.

Best Selling Diluted Soju Brands

Chamisul is made by HiteJinro. It is the world’s top-selling distilled liquor, produced by the world’s leading producer of soju, HiteJinro Co.

Chum Churum is produced by Lotte. It was first launched in 2006 and has lower alcohol content, blue 16%, green 16.5%, and red 20% ABV.

Good Day – produced by Muhak in Ulsan,  It comes in several different flavours, including grapefruit, peach, apple, and strawberry. Its alcohol content is 16.9 % ABV.

Charm Soju – produced by Kumbokju, is an old and traditional soju producer located in the city of Daegu in South Korea. The company was founded in 1957 and has several soju brands, including Charm Soju and Kumbokju.

Yipsejoo (Maple Soju) – made by Bohae, is the best-selling soju in Jeollanam-do and Gwangju, with a slightly sweeter taste and 17.8% ABV.

C1 Blue – by Daesun Distilling (From Busan). C1 soju from Daesun is made from a blend of distilled rice, barley, tapioca, and natural bedrock water flowing from Mount Samgak-san.

O2 Linn – is made by The Mackiss Company – Daejeon. Also known as “Oxygen Soju,” the brand markets itself as a soju that contains three times as much oxygen dissolved in it as most other soju on the market. They claim that it enables the consumer to sober up faster, resulting in greater clarity and freshness of its taste.

Hallasan Soju – Hallasan is a very famous mountain on the island of Jeju. There are two options depending on the strength of the alcohol: 17% & 21% ABV.


Flavoured Soju Varieties

There has also been a growing interest in flavoured versions of soju, such as green grapes, peaches, and apples. These flavored soju are often sweeter than traditional, easy on the palate, and popular with younger drinkers. They are similar to the vodka base coolers, a base spirit with added flavourings.

Watermelon Soju

Great flavour, smooth with low alcohol content.

Jinro Plum Soju

Fruity and smooth with the unique flavour of plums.

Chuga Hana Lychee Soju

Blended with distilled apple spirits made from Uiseong Korean apples. Purified with charcoal filtration with a sweet aroma and smooth taste.

Jinro Strawberry Soju

Jinro Strawberry Soju provides the sweet taste of strawberries and the smoothness of soju.

Jinro Chamisul Grapefruit

Clear, distilled liquor made with a natural hint of botanicals, this soju is also flavoured with grapefruit, giving it a fruity, smooth, sweet finish.

Good Day, Peach Soju

Peach-flavoured – lightly sweet, clean, and smooth.

Honey Soju

Ideal for flavoured cocktails, there is a good balance of sweetness and flavour with notes of honey coupled with low acidity. Best served chilled.

Sour Candy Soju

It has a refreshing lemon flavour and high acidity, pairing well with greasy foods.

Jinro Chamisul Green Grape

 It has a unique sweet green grape flavour.

Chum Churum Yogurt

Yogurt soju has a tart, creamy note and fruit flavours of orange and peach, a sophisticated version of an orange creamsicle. It can be enjoyed on its own or paired with a peach cobbler or Samgyeopsal (Korean Barbecue).

yougurt soju
Alcohol/Vol 12%

Soju Drinking Etiquette

The most important rule is, if you are not Korean, don’t let anyone tell you how to drink it! Have it your way!

Whether it is straight up, on ice, or mixed in cocktails, you’re the boss of your taste.

But, if you are still mildly curious about the soju drinking traditions, we must explore the Koran traditions and how they enjoy soju.

South Korea’s drinking culture is not about just drinking for the sake of drinking. It is about family, friends, or professional bonding. It is a lifestyle of sharing good and bad moments, respecting their elders and revealing social structure.

There are some customary rules, though, which have to be followed:

  • Pour and receive drinks with both hands or at least have both hands touching the glass as a sign of respect, especially if the person pouring your drink is an elder.
  • Turn away from an elder or other person and cover your mouth when drinking – it is a sign of respect, especially with family members or relatives who are significantly older than you.
  • Always serve the older person first, sometimes though the career position supersedes the age.
  • Don’t pour a drink yourself; wait for someone to do it for you, and always pour the drink to the other person(s).
  • Finish Your Shot – usually applies only to the first; after that, it is your choice. If you don’t feel like drinking, leave some soju in the glass; only when the glass is empty will someone pour a drink for you.
    • It is impolite to refuse the first shot.
  • If you don’t want more drinks, flip the glass upside down after it is empty.

The best way to see all these rules and the situations applied is not through YouTube videos but through Korean dramas.

Yes, the K-Dramas, great stories, lots of fun, and soju all day.

If you want to try soju, besides neat, chilled, and from a shot glass, go no further than Somaek; it is prepared by mixing a shot(s) of soju into a beer or used in your favourite soju cocktails.

Enjoy!


Footnotes

  1. https://namu.wiki/w/%EC%A6%9D%EB%A5%98%EC%8B%9D%20%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC#toc
  2. https://namu.wiki/w/%EC%8C%80%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  3. https://www.tastingtable.com/1066465/best-soju-brands-ranked
  4. https://namu.wiki/w/%EB%B3%B4%EB%A6%AC%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  5. https://www.ktxmagazine.kr/ktx/article/52933
  6. https://namu.wiki/w/%EC%88%98%EC%88%98%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  7. https://namu.wiki/w/%EA%B3%A0%EA%B5%AC%EB%A7%88%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  8. https://namu.wiki/w/%EB%B0%80%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  9. https://namu.wiki/w/%EB%A9%94%EB%B0%80%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  10. https://namu.wiki/w/%EC%98%A5%EC%88%98%EC%88%98%EC%86%8C%EC%A3%BC
  11. Executive Order 534, issued by the Korea National Tax Service on June 24, 1976
  12. https://keapaper.kea.ne.kr/RePEc/kea/keappr/KER-20131231-29-2-02.pdf
Scroll to Top