As a teenager, I can remember hearing people in movies talk about brewing “moonshine” and thinking that was so bad ass. There was this sort of back-woods, law-breakin’ appeal to moonshine that I admired. Then, some twenty years later, I moved to China and found that moonshine is basically available everywhere and is the drink of choice around here. You know how there’s widespread popularity for Bacardi Rum and Absolut Vodka in the USA? Well, that’s the kind of mass appeal that moonshine has in China. Only they call it ‘baijiu,’ and you can buy it for basically nothing at any store that sells things.
But before we go on into baijiu further, let’s stop for a second and address South Korea’s drink of champions – soju. Soju is kind of like baijiu’s wimpier kid brother. It’s not as strong, not as mean, and seems quite substantially more refined. Soju is sold everywhere in Korea and everybody drinks it. College women, old men, kids in fifth grade. Everybody. It comes in green bottles and apparently compliments everything from barbeque to beer extremely well. Koreans even judge each other’s worth based on how many bottles of soju they can drink. A real Korean can down around ten bottles, or claims to at least. I’m highly skeptical when Koreans reveal how many bottles of soju they can drink. Especially since ten bottles is enough alcohol to kill multiple frat boys.
So today I’m pitting soju up against baijiu in a battle of national liquors. May the best poison win!
Contender #1: Soju
What is it? – Soju can be distilled using almost anything. I’ve most often heard that it comes from rice, although apparently it can be made quite easily from wheat or potatoes too. It’s colorless and tastes kind of like watered down vodka. Soju is almost always taken as a shot. Sometimes people will sip it but that’s weird. Another common way to drink soju is to pour it into your beer (‘mekchu’ in Korean) – a devilish elixir referred to as ‘so-mek.’
Strength – Soju ranges from 16 – 45% alcohol by volume. 20% is the average.
Fun fact – Jinro Soju is the top selling alcohol brand in the entire world.
Personal experience – After being challenged by a Korean colleague, I successfully drank three bottles of soju by myself. This led to possibly the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. And a higher degree of respect from my colleague.
Contender #2: Baijiu
What is it? – Baijiu is made from sorghum. What the hell is sorghum, you ask? It’s a kind of grass…just look at the picture. Unlike soju, there are seemingly a million different kinds of baijiu, and the quality can vary depending on the price. Baijiu comes in cool looking bottles, often cased in neat boxes, and appears to the untrained eye to be a rather fancy product. Baijiu is over 5000 years old and tastes exactly like how I would guess rubbing alcohol tastes. Similar to soju, baijiu is most often taken in shots, although it also can be mixed in cocktails (by westerners who are desperately trying to mask its hideousness).
Strength – Baijiu ranges from 40-60% alcohol by volume.
Fun Fact – The word baijiu literally translates to ‘white wine.’ Despite that, baijiu bears little resemblance to Riesling.
Personal Experience – Yes, I have gotten quite heavily intoxicated from baijiu on multiple occasions. But having said that, I’ve never gotten too enormously ripped off it. I think this is because baijiu is so strong, one is always conscious of its power and knows better than to mess with it. Baijiu is kind of like an enormous maniac with a tattoo on his neck. You just don’t push it too far. Soju, on the other hand, is more like a skinny guy trained in martial arts. You think you can take him, but in the end he whoops your ass.
Winner – Soju
It was tempting to pick baijiu, since it’s so extreme and I feel manly drinking it. But given the choice, I would much, much rather drink soju. Even if soju sneaks up on you like a ninja and knocks you out dead in the middle of the street (or on the Seoul subway), at least it’s a pleasant experience up to that point. There is nothing pleasant about baijiu. Drinking baijiu is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer until you feel warm and fuzzy. All while gargling nail polish remover.
So there you have it. The winner of this round is soju.
And the loser is my liver