The next time anywhere where people are drinking soju, take a good look around. Without a doubt, there'll be countless imbibers with tortured facial expressions and empty shot glasses in hand. Their grimaces will fade as the harsh taste and strong, rubbing alcohol-like odor soaks into their bodies. And then the cycle will start all over again, as more bottles are polished off late into the night.
It's easy to wonder why anyone would choose to drink like this. But with soju being the world's top-selling spirit in recent years, people have affirmed that they not only like this Korean liquor, but love getting drunk with it.
Soju is so ingrained in Korean culture that it's often embraced as the country's national booze, just as kimchi is for Korean cuisine. But as the quality of your average kimchi has increased with its worldwide popularity, those classic green bottles of soju seem to have only gotten worse.
No matter how much aspirin I take or water I drink, the pain of a soju hangover just lingers.
Traditionally, soju was made from rice or grains in small batches, but in the late 20th century it became mass-produced with cheaper starches like sweet potato and tapioca. Thanks to cheap sweeteners and other additives, you can buy a bottle of soju anywhere in Korea for less than the price of a cup of coffee. And with shitty ingredients and added sugar come agonizing hangovers.
But even with the threat of incapacitating hangovers, soju's low cost and magical ability to make even the most pitiful social gathering into the best party ever has people everywhere happily drinking it—and in massive amounts.
For avid soju drinker Dan Foley, a usual night out has him easily drinking two bottles. But it was on a night when he had three that pushed him over the edge. "The uniqueness of its hangover is this hyper-concentrated headache," he says. "It feels almost like a drill pressing above my left eye. And unlike other hangovers, no matter how much aspirin I take or water I drink, the pain just lingers."
For Carolyn Kim, innumerable soju hangovers always had her reaching for her go-to cure: breakfast sandwiches from her local New York bodega, Vitamin Water, and strong coffee. Reflecting on the explosive popularity of Korean food in recent years, she wondered, Why can't we do this for soju?
Less than a year later, she created her own spirits line called Yobo Soju.
"I always like to say, 'Drink different, drink better,'" says Kim. "I had been wanting to drink more soju in general, but I needed better quality."
Yobo Soju holds the distinction of being New York's first soju made from nothing but grapes and water. Unlike most traditional sojus imported from Korea, Yobo Soju contains no sulfites, preservatives, additives, or sugars. During its testing phase, Kim received very little feedback from drinkers about hangovers from Yobo Soju; most testers didn't suffer from symptoms at all.
Handmade in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Yobo Soju uses locally sourced and sustainably farmed Catawba grapes. Kim says using grapes instead of other traditional items, such as rice or barley, was an easy choice.
"I wanted to create a New York product, and upstate grapes are high-quality and readily available. I wanted to try out a grape-based soju as much as I wanted to create a soju," she says. "Once I sampled it, I knew I had something good."
After the Catawba grapes are harvested, they're used to create a wine. That liquid then runs through a 30-foot continuous still to make a single-distillation grape base, which hovers around 70 percent alcohol. Afterward, the base is cut with local water from the Finger Lakes to reach an alcohol percentage of 23 percent.
"The entire process is very deliberate on our part to not use fillers and sweeteners and things like that," Kim says. "We just wanted a clean and high-quality product."
Max Soh, the general manager of Oiji in Manhattan, decided to carry Yobo Soju because it represented the much-needed change that commercial soju has needed.
Soh's first memory of drinking at 14 isn't just linked to cheap soju, but the subsequent hangover that came with it. "It was a horrible experience in the beginning, but then I started to enjoy it at the same time because I was getting so drunk," he says. "After more than a bottle, I blacked out."
I would just throw back shots left and right. And initially you think, Oh, it's nothing, it'll be fine. But it's not fine.
Yobo Soju lacks the abrasive taste and smell of the cheaper stuff that Soh was drinking in his teens. This is also one of the reasons why he deemed Yobo Soju a good fit to carry at Oiji. Its higher quality and complexity of flavors makes it enjoyable on the palate, instead of being something people drink as fast as possible to minimize the time it spends on the tongue. Soh also believes the type of water that's used is one of the most important ingredients when making soju.
Chef Liz Kwon of White Tiger in Brooklyn says that she could never drink more than three bottles of soju. "Oh, I have a ton of terrible memories with drinking soju," she says. "I would just throw back shots left and right. And initially you think, Oh, it's nothing, it'll be fine. But it's not fine, and I would always wake up with a bad headache."
Kwon says that Yobo Soju's bouquet is one of the many things that set it apart from the rest. "It's also delicious, and we're currently in the midst of designing summer cocktails with it."
Even though a product like Yobo Soju is creating a new soju experience for drinkers, Kim knows that most people won't give up the more common brands of soju—including herself. Because they're so popular and commonly available, the soju giants that currently dominate the market will most likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And Kim is OK with that.
"I'm not going to knock the green bottles I grew up drinking," says Kim. "There's definitely a place for them, and it's not like I'm never going to drink them again."