There's someone special I know who has a hankering to try the native drink of Korea. I can't wait to go on a tasting spree with her, but until then, I figured I'd post a little about this misnomer known as Korea's sake (aka Korea's vodka). It's been listed as one of the world's cheapest alcohols (most economic way of getting smashed), though, because of international trade tariffs and such, it's rather expensive here in the US of A.
Considering my own tumultuous history with what many Koreans calls, "A friend of life" aka soju "소주", I thought I'd share some background, facts, and stories involving this infamous green bottle (though, it can be found in Korea in clear bottles as well). You can read more about from a true FOB (just read his writing) here: http://www.american.edu/TED/soju.htm
I came upon the notion of soju at a wee age of 13 or was it 12? (well, the effects on memory are plain to see). My soju experience came hand in hand with my first experience with soondae "순대" (blood sausage and the whatnot, but this is for another post), with the company and guidance of my hyungs (older brothers). They were all college students, who, in trying to share their Korean cultural roots with me, naturally brought me to eat Korean food, and drink Korean liquor. I can't say I minded too much. Before we get ahead of ourselves and assume the worst about these "hyungs" of mind, I should mention that they were extremely conscientious of my age and safety. With that said, once my parents caught wind of it, there were far fewer trips to "go see my Korean camp counselors at college". Sad.
So it began thus. During my 2 and a half year stay in Korea the relationship really blossomed. As many of you might, or might not know, Korean BBQ is some of the best in the world. There is NOTHING like sitting outside at one of these BBQ shacks during the summer, grilling up some good ol' meat (btw, I've converted to a veggie + fish diet lately, but I can't knock a good Korean BBQ), and of course, ordering bottle, after bottle of soju. Koreans like this clear, fairly watery, swift shot of liquor to chase down the greasy meat. They also enjoy it with spicy foods as well, as it tends to take a bite out of the spicy-ness, or perhaps it's the spicey-ness that takes a bite out of the soju (<shrugs>).
To be completely frank, nearing the end of this post, I can't say I really LOVE soju now like I used to. I would probably opt for an alternative drink if given the choice (but godforbid one of my Korean friends should hear me say this).
Now a few tidbit pointers for drinking with Koreans, and drinking soju:
There are quite a few brands of soju, but it's not like sake~! So many people (read this as, so many WHITE people) find it indistinguishable from Japan's sake. There is one major difference, sake is made from RICE, soju is made from potatoes (usually YAMS). I particularly like San Soju (산소주). I don't really know when it started to be produced, but know that when I first got to Korea, it was just starting to become popular. It was introduced as a hang-over reducing soju, as they add green tea extract to the mix (of course I think this is probably a marketing crock-of-bird poo, but it got in my head, and so I believe it too). The other really popular brand, is the straight up stuff, Cham-i-seul. But like I said, I'd go for the San Soju. Here in the United States, Jinro (the Korean liquor producer) has a few popular labels as well, including Green, and just plain Jinro.
Soju is so popular, you can buy it pretty much EVERYWHERE. This includes your local 7-11's (yes, they have them there, and they're pretty darn cool). The last time I checked, it costed about 900won (about 90cents) to buy a bottle. You can also buy 1.5liter (like the Poland Spring bottles) of soju. They also have mini plastic "flasks" of soju, and they even have soju in juice cartons (like the small ones that your mom probably gave you, but was labeled "Hi-C" not "Soju").
Now for the drinking part. My friends and I in Korea liked to joke that soju was the type of friend who would love you one second and beat the crap out of you the next if you weren't careful (talk about an emtionally unstable friend). But it's very true. Soju does NOT have a very high alcohol content 20-25% at most. This tends to lead the deviant nubile drinker to exceed their soju limit. Where often you drink and feel the effects of drunkenness and either 1) can't drink anymore or 2) realize this and STOP drinking more, soju immediately goes from the drunken "happy stage" to the drunken "kicking your arse" stage. I could write more, but the long and the short of it is, soju tolerance is highly different for each person and as compared to other alcohols (I've known a girl in Korea to have drank a CAPFULL and pass out, literally!).
There is a Korean wine-type of drink called Baek Sae-ju (Baek means 100, as in 100 years liquor). A favorite for the party-minded individual is to pour one bottle of Baek Sae-ju with one bottle of soju to form what we call, "Oh-ship-sae-ju" (Oh-ship means 50, as in 50 years liquor, cuz it's been diluted by one half). This tends to really knock people's socks off, sometimes literally (unfortunately).
Koreans party-goers are also a fan of the pok-tan-ju (or the bombs). This usually entails whiskey shots dumped into half full beer mugs, but a shot of soju mixes just as well.
Having experienced both of the above methods for terminal intoxication, I can say that both are quite effective.
As a reminder, I will write a post in the future about drinking customs, history, and etiquette. But for now, lest all my readers render me a full-blown alcoholic, and refer me to the local AA meetings, I'm going to end on a blissful note of wisdom; drinking with the right alcohol (and or amount of alcohol) is far less important than being with the companions with whom you choose to be consuming it with. (<— ewww ended the sentence with a preposition, oh well)