Soju at Arisun
“Is it even English?” one might ask looking at the title of this post. The answer is “no”, it’s Korean, and these are the only Korean words I know. I learned those words in a Korean Restaurant called, guess what, Arisun. There I had a chance to taste Korean vodka. It’s weaker than regular vodka — just below 20% — but given that Australians normally drink vodka with mixers, such description is not too far off the mark. This type of drink also has its own name — soju. Most of it is made and consumed in South Korea, so for the rest of the world, including me, this word was unknown, at least until the first tasting. And, by the way, congratulations, now you know two Korean words too!
When I looked up “soju” in Wikipedia I found a claim that soju was the largest selling spirit in the world. I couldn’t believe that and personally checked the provided references. I discovered that it was only partially true — the statement applied not to soju in general, but to Jinro Soju which was the largest selling spirit brand in the world in 2016. Nevertheless, it is an impressive achievement for a drink not widely known outside Koreas.
I tried two varieties of soju in Arisun Restaurant. The first was apparently a house brand of the restaurant and was called, unsurprisingly, Arisun Soju. Contrary to “vodka” designation on the menu, the label on the bottle described the contents as apple wine. The taste was light and fruity, but one of my companions described the aroma as chemical. This is not surprising as distillation exposed the ethanol smell which could not be completely masked by the residual apple flavour.
Another variety was labelled Happy Water and had a funny name Chum Churum Soju. (You should have seen Olga’s expression when I told her that I drank Chum Churum Happy Water.) It was made from the traditional ingredients — rice and barley — and the taste was drier and lighter than that of Arisun Soju, and it didn’t feel chemical.
The food that I had with soju was chicken fried rice. I can’t say that it was a good match, and I struggle to think of any food pairing that would be better with soju than without it. In this respect it is similar to regular vodka which is not drunk for its flavour-enhancing qualities. Nevertheless, an article in Guardian had some food suggestions which should go well with soju.
One day I might experiment with soju and food pairings, and with soju in cocktails, and I need to do it in order to fit this drink into my world view. Currently, I don’t see it as something that I would drink at dinner with food. It’s not a fine spirit that I’d enjoy in small doses, although there are stronger and, who knows, maybe better varieties of soju. It is easy-drinking but it’s not something that I would easily sip like beer with friends after work — I’d be drunk before I knew it. So for now soju remains an exotic drink that requires more exploration. Given the dearth of soju brands in Australia, the only reasonable way of doing it is to go to Korea (South Korea of course). And such visit may be coming pretty soon — in September we plan to fly to France by Korean Air, and guess where the stopover is going to be…