Ask a room full of people what the world’s best-selling spirit brand is and you’ll no doubt end up with a variety of answers: Smirnoff, Bacardi, Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniel’s. In fact, it’s none of those. It’s Jinro Soju.If your response to that answer was one of surprise then you’re probably not alone. Here’s a quick guide to the spirit:
What is soju?
The national spirit of Korea (most brands on the export market hail from the south), it is a combination of alcohol (normally made using rice, wheat, barley or (sweet) potatoes) and water. There are two main types: distilled soju (at 30% abv or above) or diluted soju (20-30% abv).
What does it taste like?
The production methods resemble those for vodka and it has a similar taste profile, but slightly sweeter. Diluted soju is similar to low-strength vodka, with all the flavour, but less alcohol, making it ideal as a mixer.
How do you drink it?
Part of the reason for soju’s popularity is its versatility. Two common drinks are a socol (as a long drink with cola) and a somaek (a measure of soju in a glass of beer). Excellent mixed with fruit juice (I recommend apple), it is also drinkable on its own and is often enjoyed from small glasses with food.
What foods does it match with?
Soju is made for anju (the Koreans have their own word for foods which are best consumed with alcohol). This ranges from side dishes such as kimchi to main courses including nogari (Alaskan pollock with peanuts). A Korean-style dish easier to find in the western world would be samgyeopsal (barbecued pork belly).
How many bottles of Jinro are sold each year?
Jinro accounts for half of all white spirits sold in South Korea, where soju accounts for 97% of the category. Global sales in 2013 were an incredible 750 million bottles; the second-biggest spirits brand, Smirnoff, sold less than half that.
What varieties are available?
The producer (HiteJinro) makes a range of sojus. The two brands that are sold outside Asia are Chamisul (as advertised by everyone’s favourite Korean rapper, Psy) and Jinro (made from a combination of barley, rice, sweet potato and tapioca), which comes in a variety of strengths for different markets: 20%, 24% and 25%.
We stock the latter (now in half-bottle size, too). Here’s what I made of it:
Nose: Neutral, with hints of butter, cream and flint.
Palate: Light in body, with subtle herbal notes of parsley and sage, backed up by pepper spice.
Finish: Clean and fresh, with a hint of pepper at the very end.
Comment: Light and easy to drink, it’s not hard to see why this is so popular in Korea. Its subtle character make it an easy way to spice up your fruit juice and will not overpower food if accompanying a meal.
Jinro Soju is a straightforward, well-made spirit. Its light and neutral nature both complements mixers and adds strength to cocktails. This diluted soju is an interesting alternative to classic vodka – it’s no longer a Korean secret.