Bonus content: Derek Sandhaus comments on how Korean soju has changed since the 1960’s

On November 1, the same day his book was released, I interviewed Derek Sandhaus about his new release, Drunk in China. Read the full interview: Interview with Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China. We talked about a wide-variety of topics, including Korean soju. The section on Korean soju didn’t seem to go with the rest of the interview, so I post it by itself here.

Not to distract from baijiu, but you know a little bit about other Asian liquors, too. Another liquor readers of this blog are interested in is soju, Korean liquor, and it has changed over time. I was just thinking, the old-fashioned style of soju has a higher alcohol content and more complex flavor, and it kind of reminded me of the taste of baijiu when I tried it.

The old name for baijiu before the 1950’s was shaojiu, which is what soju is called in Chinese. Soju in Korea was very similar to the kind of baijiu they make up in Northeastern China and Manchuria up until very recently. Very strong, grain-based. But what happened was in the 1960’s, Korea was having rice shortages after the Korean War, so the government passed a law saying that, first, you couldn’t use grain to make alcohol, and secondly, you had to distill it up to a very high ethanol level. Basically, soju became industrial-level ethanol with added water. That’s kind of like how they make vodka and other kinds of neutral white spirits. 

So, basically, because that rule in the 1960’s, what is now called soju is not what used to be soju. Now it has become a kind of tapioca or sweet potato vodka. In recent years, there has been an effort among some producers to bring back a more traditional variety.

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About Mitchell Blatt

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

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