From its origins in the mid-1200s to its modern-day worldwide popularity, soju has seen a lot. It has charmed millions of people around the planet and become the launchpad for some of the most creative cocktails on earth.
Traditional soju comes in a green bottle and offers a delightfully neutral flavor that makes it perfect for, well, everything. That’s probably why it’s the world’s best-selling alcohol. But whether you’re around Koreans or not, it’s fun to experience the different ways of enjoying this timeless liquor.
Below are three ways to partake in soju:
1. Learn Proper Bottle Opening Technique
That’s right. There’s an art to serving a bottle of soju the right way.
First, soju is best served cold and neat. Prepare well in advance by chilling the bottle in the refrigerator. You can keep it in an ice cooler if you’re headed out for the evening — but when it comes time to pour it, don’t add ice! This is a liquor best enjoyed as an ice-cold shot from a glass right after pouring.
But First, You Must Learn the Whirlpool Technique
It goes like this: You hold the soju bottle near the bottom with one hand. By swirling it in a circle, get the liquid inside to form a whirlpool (a miniature tornado) to dazzle and impress your guests. Or just yourself. Do it either way.
Dating back to who-knows-when, this technique is said to have brought any sediment that settled on the bottom of the bottle back to the top. This used to be a byproduct of production — today, it’s a great way to stir up the flavors and add some traditional flair to the experience.
Next, holding the bottom of the bottle’s neck in one hand, slap the bottom of it with the other. Do this a couple of times. Then twist the cap off. Note: You can also use your elbow to bang the bottom of the bottle. This spanking is also said to have broken up any sediment deposited on the bottom.
Now, hold the lower portion of the bottle to keep it steady. Make a V with your middle and index finger and, more dramatically than might seem necessary, ram the bottleneck into the webbing between these two fingers. If you do it right, a small splatter of soju should come out. This is said to have splashed the sediment out of the bottle.
Note that modern production techniques have removed any and all sediments from soju. This tradition is simply there to connect us to the long history of this liquor.
2. Know How (and in What Order) to Serve Soju
Now begins the ritual of pouring the soju. Seniority reigns supreme here: The oldest person in the group starts with the first pour. After they’ve poured a shot into every other person’s glass, another member takes the bottle and pours them a shot. This is a show of deference.
Soju is meant to be poured using both hands. Each person who pours a shot should hold the bottle at the bottom and on the neck. This is also a show of respect, particularly when pouring for those older than you.
As the pourer, you should not fill your own glass. Fill everyone else’s first, then set the bottle down. Someone else will pick up the bottle and pour you a shot by way of thanks.
Shot Glass Technique
When someone is pouring you a shot, hold the glass with both hands. This is — you guessed it! — a show of respect. Facilitate the pourer by picking up your glass and moving it up and toward them.
If you are older, on the second round of drinks, you may switch to a one-handed shot glass receival. It pays to be older!
Eye Contact Taboos
This isn’t the New York subway, but the same rule applies: Avoid eye contact! At least during the first shot.
When you drink the first shot, it’s customary to turn your head to the side and hold the shot glass with both hands. Drink the first round as a shot — don’t sip it.
There’s an interesting origin to this tradition. In traditional Korea, flashing or showing your teeth to someone can be taken as a sign of disrespect. When you take a shot, it’s often the case that this happens inadvertently.
Keep the Shots Rolling
Your sense of courtesy is everything in maintaining good soju karma — and that means you must keep empty glasses filled as desired by your drinking buddies. It is tradition that glasses should not sit empty. If you see someone sitting with an empty glass in front of them, ask if they’d like to have another shot (remember that anyone can take on this role after the first round of shots).
Once the first round is over, it is no longer a “requirement” to take the drink as a shot. You can sip subsequent shots at your own pace! Drinking together, though, is a show of communal togetherness. It’s a bit of a taboo to drink alone in the Korean tradition — that’s why you should pour a shot for someone else if they pour one for you.
3. Play Some Soju Drinking Games
Lively crowd? No worries — there’s a game for that.
Flick the Cap
One of the most widely played drinking games is Flick the Cap. Upon opening a fresh bottle of soju, you’ll notice there’s a bit of the seal still connected to the cap — twist it to make it stiffer.
Now it’s an all-out game of dexterity. Take turns flicking the end piece with your finger to try and knock it off. Whoever does wins; all those who didn’t, drink!
Soju is great for the game of Titanic. Take a drinking glass and fill it halfway with beer. Then set a shot glass floating in the beer and take turns pouring soju into it. The one who causes it to “sink” must drink the mixture (but don’t worry, it’s called “somek,” and it’s delicious).
Enjoy Soju the Traditional — and Not So Traditional — Way
Whether you’re going full-on traditional or spicing things up a little bit, soju is a great choice. Get creative by pairing it with the perfect strain of weed, or check out our recipes to round out the experience.