If Korea had an official national beverage, it would be soju. Instead of trying to sum up soju's place in Korean culture, I'll defer to a passage by Ines Cho in an article called "Moving Beyond the Green Blur: a History of Soju":
Soju is the powerfully pungent alcohol that, as some Koreans insist, can magically save their soul from the wretched past. It can take them to high places where no drugs could lift them; its liquid balm heals wounded hearts. To novelists like Kim Jong-kwang, who proudly titled his 2003 compilation of short stories, "The Power of Soju and Jjamppong [spicy noodle soup]," soju can even raise and answer existential questions.
But therein lies the contradiction in Korean's soju consumption: even the most fastidious intellectuals, whose taste buds can discern a Gran Cru from a Cru (classifications of French wine), remain faithful to what connoisseurs readily dismiss as a cheap, low-grade vodka designed for desperate alcoholics.
Of course, what was once for alcoholics has been refashioned into a lighter drink for the younger set.
Traditionally distilled from rice, this neutral-tasting beverage is now also made with other starches such as potato, wheat, and tapioca. Expensive potent soju distilled the old-fashion way has about 40 to 45% alcohol and is typically given as gifts.
Inexpensive diluted soju, with 20 to 35% alcohol, is the kind that's in every convenience store in Korea and northern Chinese cities. It's the kind you drink with your friends on a given day. Despite the fact that inexpensive soju as ubiquitous as a Budweiser, Korean drinkers are as loyal to it as beer connosieurs would be to good microbrews.
In Korea and the U.S. it's en vogue to use soju in cocktails in place of vodka or gin. The neutral-tasting spirit is lower in alcohol, meaning that soju cocktails can be great aperitifs.
This Apple Soju Cocktail is from of David Chang, chef and owner of NYC's Momofuku restaurants, via Gourmet. I used Jinro Chamisul Soju, a 19.5% abv version that's easily found in Beijing and also exported to the West. The cocktail is easy to make, and requires few additional ingredients. The macerated apple lends a subtle tartness to the cocktail, making it a tasty and light drink for parties or dinner.
Or, in my case, an afternoon drink in the company of my iBook, while I type a blog post on soju.
Apple Soju Cocktail Adapted from David Chang, via Gourmet
1 small crisp apple, like Gala or Granny Smith 1 1/2 cups soju 2 to 3 cups chilled tonic water Ice Lime wedge or apple wedge (optional)
Julienne or thinly slice apple into matchstick size pieces. Put in a pitcher and stir in soju. Cover and refrigerate; allow the apple to macerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
Fill a wine or cocktail glass with ice. Strain 1/4 cup soju in each cup and top with tonic water. (Or put in equal parts soju and tonic, if you like your drinks strong.) Add a few apple matchsticks, and garnish with an apple or lime wedge. Serve immediately.