For such a small country, there is a lot of alcohol in Korea. And it comes in many forms. Maybe because Korea was relatively isolated for so long, or maybe they're just an inventive bunch, but for whatever reason, the Korean natives have come up with some very creative ways to get their drink on.
Today, we're considering the most ubiquitous liquor of them all - soju. (I'd give you the spelling of it in Korean, but I am not that fancy.) This harsh little spirit sold in the green bottles is everywhere in Korea. Everywhere. Bottles of soju are ubiquitous in every restaurant, home, grocery market, even sold at 7-11, and they are available for alarmingly low prices. We're talking "cheap as free," here, people. You can get Soju for under 3 won, which is around $3. Sometimes it goes for $1.
Koreans love their soju. For the natives, it's not a true Korean-style meal unless there is an abundance of empty soju bottles littering the table. Their enthusiasm for this liquor has made soju the top selling alcohol in the world.
So what is this feisty little drink? The word "soju" literally means "burned liquor." And trust me, that's an apt statement. Soju is traditionally distilled from rice, wheat, or barley, but ends as straight up ethanol and water. It's around 19% alcohol (but I've seen some as high as 25% and rumor has it that Adong Soju, a traditional family recipe, has 45% alcohol content. Hey, let's all burn holes in our tongues!). To me, soju tastes like weak vodka. It has a small oily burn to it, and definitely finishes with a little aftertaste of ethanol. Kind of like a cleaning solvent (dying to try it, yet?). Some soju varieties (the ones you can get for $1...) have a distinctive aftertaste of diesel. Because why wouldn't you want your drink to taste like Windex that's been pumped through a gas tank?
The soju itself is served in small glasses (slightly larger than shot glasses) and people sip from them - unless someone at your table shouts "ONE SHOT!" and then, well. It's party time. There are other ways to serve soju, including by mixing it with beer - an unholy combination known as "somaek." You can also drop a shot of soju into beer, which is called "poktanju" or "bomb liquor."
Just like "anytime" is the right time for soju, "anything" is also the right thing to pair it with. There really isn't any etiquette when it comes to drinking soju, except when it's being served. You NEVER pour your own soju - someone else always pours it for you, while you hold your glass with two hands. When you pour it for others, you should hold the bottle with two hands.
As soju has become more international, it seems that people are trying to class it up a bit. Mandu, a local Korean place here in DC, serves a variety of soju-tinis. The Momofuku empire in New York city will serve you a lychee-soju slushy or an apple-soju aperitif. I'm honestly not super sold on soju cocktails, yet. Soju, to me, is one step up from drinking rubbing alcohol. I drink it in Korea because....when in Rome and all that. But, I doubt you'd find me pounding ONE SHOT! anywhere outside of Seoul.
As a little bit of soju-based trivia, Pyongyang Soju is the only North Korean product available for sale in the U.S. It's made of "73% maize, 25% rice, and 2% glutinous rice." It's slogan is "Well-known soju" and it's 23% alcohol. How good is it? I'll never know. I wouldn't touch it with a 10 foot pole.