Soju, that elixir synonymous with a night out among the crowded streets and bustling restaurants of South Korea. Ubiquitous green bottles fill tables and leave behind mean hangovers.
Craft soju existed long before mass-produced green bottle soju exploded onto the Korean drinking scene filling the void created when occupation, war and rapid economic growth almost entirely decimated traditional ways of brewing and distilling.
In early times many homes across Korea had their own breweries and distilleries. Creating craft liquor centuries before ‘craft’ was the cool drink on the block.
Japanese occupation (1910-1945) put an end to almost all home production with bans, high taxation of distilleries, and requirements to distil only Japanese style drinks. The Korean War then followed in the 1950’s causing widespread poverty and destruction of society and culture.
Following this destructive and awful time in Korean history, the government implemented ambitious plans to fuel economic growth from the 1960’s – 1990’s.
During this time the government established the Grain Management Law to control the use of grain which included a ban on using rice for alcohol production due to food shortages. Several companies then began to produce cheap alcohol from whatever they could get their hands on, in particular tapioca, a starch extracted from cassava and potatoes. Apparently, the result was pretty rough and needed additives and sweeteners to make it drinkable. Given the low cost of the drink, it became incredibly popular and has become the drink we mostly associate with soju today.
Thankfully in the 1980’s, the Korean government turned its focus to revitalizing traditional and craft liquors. This included designating several traditional liquors national intangible assets to emphasize the significance of craft liquor.
Many craft producers have begun to gain prominence both in Korea and abroad and we’re hopeful that more and more people will appreciate and support traditional craft soju just as craft beer and gin have gained popularity in recent times.