The History of Soju

Korean distillers have had a turbulent history, experiencing highs and lows. Initially, distillation lost its significance and became a way of collecting taxes. However, with the revival of K-culture, Korean distillers are once again gaining prominence.


A notable influx of distilled liquor into the country.

There are various hypotheses regarding the time and process of distillation in Korea. Among these, the most widely accepted theory is that it was introduced during the invasion of the Yuan Dynasty. In order to conquer Japan, the Yuan Dynasty established general offices throughout Goryeo, which resulted in the spread of the method of making distilled liquor in those areas.


Soju first appeared in the literature.

According to "Goryeo History," a history book compiled during the Joseon Dynasty, soju is mentioned in 1374, during the first year of King Wu's reign, the 32nd monarch. The book highlights that people were spending money on soju, silk, gold, and jade bowls instead of being frugal. Kim Jin, the Marshal of Gyeongsang-do, was quite fond of soju and frequently included his superiors and colleagues in drinking sessions known as "sojudo (燒酒徒)."



The culture of soju seems to have settled faster in Andong, where the Yuan Dynasty established a forward base and troops were frequently stationed. It is said that Lee Hyun-bo, a civil servant from Nongam, returned to work as a court official in the middle of the Joseon Dynasty after being exiled in Andong during Yeonsan-gun's reign. Andong Soju has since retained its existence and gained a special status as a medicinal and local folk liquor.


Jeju Island and Multi Soju (多用燒酒)

Jeju, the location of the Yuan Dynasty's general government, is also an region where soju was developed. Due to scarcity of rice, Jeju mainly used field grains such as millet, barley, and sorghum to produce soju. Rice-based rice wine was consumed by the ruling class, while the general population drank mixed grain soju. Additionally, soju served as a sacrificial offering in shamanistic Dangje and Gut ceremonies, which were popular in Jeju. Early Joseon Dynasty's "New Geography and Scenic Views" describes Jeju's drinking culture as "multi-purpose soju," which means "making a lot of soju."


Japanese Colonization and disappearance of Korean traditional Soju

Traditional soju faced suppression during the Japanese colonial era in 1916. This was a critical event in Korean alcohol culture. Under a liquor tax decree introduced by the Japanese government, people were required to obtain a liquor license and report the type and production of liquor to the competent financial office. Traditional soju and other homemade Gayangju were replaced by wheat wine, causing numerous traditional liquors to vanish. Liquor production was also standardized and regulated, with the rise of herbal liquor, takju, and registered soju.


The first Soju factory

The industrialization of soju began during the Japanese colonial period, with the establishment of the first mechanical soju factory in 1919. The transition to industrialized soju began in 1919 with the establishment of mechanical soju factories that replaced traditional yeast with mass production systems. The first mass-produced soju factory was "Joseon Soju," established by a Japanese founder in Pyongyang. Four months later, "Joil Brewery" emerged in Incheon as the first South Korean factory to achieve mass production of soju. These factories focused on maximizing sales volume and mass production, resulting in issues such as tax evasion, destruction of local wells, and accidents during the production process.


The era of Diluted Soju

The peak of diluted soju was in 1965. As a result of changing the Grain Management Act, traditional distilled soju lost its prominence. In times of rice supply and demand crisis, the brewing of rice-made soju and makgeolli was completely prohibited. On the other hand, diluted soju made with cheap ingredients like tapioca from Taiwan saw rapid growth. Although alcohol was allowed again in 1977 with the introduction of unified rice, strict regulations caused distilled soju, which is mainly made from rice, to lose its identity.


Downfall of traditional ABV 30%

Diluted soju gained popularity as an affordable drink for various moods, disregarding its taste. The government also utilized soju as a means of taxation. Soju companies chose to produce soju at 25% ABV, breaking the 30% ABV alcohol limit due to the government's liquor allocation system. Under this system, the government directly assigned alcohol, the primary material for soju, to producers, limiting the availability of different alcohols. Soju companies, in their pursuit of maximizing profit by increasing soju production, made the decision to decrease their frequency and abandon the long-existing "30% ABV soju."


The implementation of a local quota system for soju

In 1977, the implementation of a local quota system for soju resulted in the distribution of soju with different trademarks in different regions. The purpose of this system was to prevent the production of low-quality alcoholic beverages and restore order in distribution. The government demanded that only one company produce soju in each city and province, and that liquor wholesalers purchase more than 50% of local soju. As a result, the number of soju manufacturing plants decreased significantly from 250 to just 11. However, in 1996, this system was declared unconstitutional.


The term "traditional soju (傳統酒)“

The term "traditional soju (Jeontongju) " first emerged in Korea, when the market was dominated by cheap diluted soju and makgeolli. It was during the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics that there was a notable shift in mainstream culture. This led to a movement aimed at promoting historically significant Korean liquor and preserving traditional culture through the intangible cultural property system. In 1987, the function of local liquor production was designated as a national intangible cultural asset, and in 1988, 28 types of traditional homemade liquors were selected and named as "traditional folk liquor. (家釀酒 Gayangju) Since then, the expression "traditional soju (Jeontongju)" has become commonly used.


The Inter Summit between North and South

In the year 2000, Korean traditional liquor gained importance as a meaningful choice of dinner wine during major national events such as summits and ministerial meetings. During the inter-Korean summit between President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Munbae-ju (Jeontongju) was selected as the official drink for the dinner. Munbae-ju, a distilled liquor since the Goryeo Dynasty, played a significant role in the inter-Korean summit. It was designated as an important intangible cultural asset in 1986 and chosen as a traditional food master in 1995.


The first Hwayo 41% ABV

In 2005 marked the emergence of Hwayo, a distinct soju variant. Created by Chairman Cho Tae-kwon of Gwangjuyo Group, a well-established ceramic company since 1963, this unique soju was brought to life. Chairman Cho is renowned not only for his role in Gaon Society, founded in 2003, but also for spearheading the momentous "Globalizing Korean Cuisine" campaign. It is worth mentioning that Gaon and Bicena hold the honor of being the first-ever Korean restaurants to receive Michelin stars on a global scale. This innovative soju was produced in collaboration with experts in distilled liquor with the intention of introducing it to the international market. In contrast to the diluted soju that is saturating the market, Gwangjuyo has fearlessly introduced unique products in terms of price, taste, and container design, signaling a new era for Korean distilled soju.


“Soju” registered in Merriam-Webster

The year 2008 saw the addition of "Soju" to the English dictionary by Merriam-Webster as the designated English term for this Korean spirit. It is described as "Korea's Vodka Distilled with Rice." This recognition reflects the global acceptance of the word, similar to other iconic Korean cultural elements like Kimchi and Taekwondo. A notable moment occurred in 2010 when the music video for the popular Korean hip-hop group Far East Movement's song "Like A G6" featured a scene showcasing people consuming Korean soju and beer.


Korean Liquor Fair and Award

The Korean Liquor Fair and Award that begins in 2010 is an annual event supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation. It aims to enhance the overall taste competitiveness of Korean liquor, encompassing different types of alcoholic beverages such as takju, Yakcheongju, fruit wine, and ordinary distilled liquor. Additionally, its purpose is to uncover outstanding products. The fair has showcased a diverse range of modern design distillers since 2015, evident in the list of winning entries.


Korea Distilled Liquor Association

In 2020, the Distilled Liquor Association was established under the guidance of Lee Jong-ki, the CEO of Ominara, a specialty liquor brewery located in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang Province. The association's chairman, Lee Jong-ki, aims to regain the prominence of distilled soju, as diluted soju has impacted its market position. To expand the market and ensure the competitive edge of Korean distilled liquor, numerous activities will be implemented. These initiatives include transitioning from a closing tax on traditional liquor to a pay-as-you-go system, alongside establishing a comprehensive system and enhancing awareness.