A Spirited Debate: Soju vs. Baijiu

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blog baijiuAs 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.

blog sojuBut 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

blog soju adWhat 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

blog sorghumWhat 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.

blog baijiu bottlePersonal 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

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Drunken Malaise, One Year Contracts, and Tired Barhopping in Bupyeong

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Toronto was leaving on Saturday, so we thought it would be a good idea to go out drinking one last time.  Of course we did – drinking is what people do to say goodbye.  Toronto was flying out of Korea and heading back to Canada.  He didn’t have a job to go back to but his time here was done.  Maybe he’d come back, he told us.

“I’ll be here,” I said.  Toronto would be another in a long line of friends who had gone away.  That’s how it goes when you live in a foreign country: work visas eventually expire and people get sucked back to their homes.  Their real homes.  Permanent ones.  In the last month, most of my friends had vanished.  Perkins went back to South Africa, Pierre back to Canada, Cindy to Chicago, Clare to England, and the list goes on and on.  It sort of reminded me of how much I used to hate summer vacation when I was at college.  For two months, everyone just picked up and took off.  I’d have to leave my fun apartment and move back in with my parents until school started back up.

I had never thought “vacation” and “punishment” could be synonymous until those awful summer breaks.

For Toronto’s going away party, it was only him, TTD, and me.  We started with a few drinks at Underground, and then went over to a popular Western bar called Goose Goose.  I sat at the bar and smoked and ordered whisky and cokes.  Thursdays at Goose Goose used to be packed; the place would be full of life, young people yelling and drinking.  There was an excitement there.  A community.  We used to go to Goose on Thursdays and everybody we knew would be there.  It was the place to go to play trivia and to complain about work and to plan the weekend.  But on this night it was dead and dreary, with just a few people sitting around a table or playing darts.  There was nobody there to talk to.  We ordered more drinks and decided the best thing to do would be to get drunk.

Goose was getting depressing so we left and went to Who’s Bar.  Toronto had something to do and stepped away for a bit.  TTD and I went in and sat at the bar.  The place was empty with the exception of the owner, Won Seok, and some of his Korean friends.  They were playing poker at a table.  We told Won Seok not to bother getting up and stepped behind the bar and poured our beers ourselves.  We sat there talking, and then TTD said, “Hey, you know…I’ve known you for a year now and I never asked you before…why did you get divorced?”

I tried to come up with some kind of a coherent answer.  The marriage felt like a lifetime ago.  Why did I get divorced?  I didn’t know.  My life three or four years ago had been so different.  I remember when Betty and I bought a house in Charlotte together.  The realtor gave us the keys early and we drove down at night, just to walk in our new home and know that it was really ours.  We went in and I remember how damn happy Betty was.  This would be the place where we would make our life together.  Our first real home together.

About a year later, I moved out.

After, when I came to Korea, I wanted to show my students pictures of the house back in the States, so they’d have an idea of what “back home” looked like.  Betty lived there now with her new boyfriend.  I typed the address into Google and I found it on a Real Estate website.  She was selling our house.  I had no idea.  For some reason, everything sunk in right then.  It was like someone highlighted a huge portion of my life and hit the backspace button.

TTD and I were bored and starting to feel miserable.  We walked back to Goose.  Everyone had gone.  The bartender was asleep and the rest of the staff was busy playing slow Korean music on the jukebox.  Toronto called and we went back to Who’s Bar.  There were two strangers there this time.  They were happy to see some signs of life, and they bought us Flaming Dr. Peppers and we all drank.  It was after three in the morning and the booze was starting to do its thing.  TTD and I were drunk and we told the strangers that we were a couple and that we met at an orgy.  The strangers seemed to believe that, or maybe they were just so drunk they would’ve believed anything.

Toronto sat there laughing at all of us.  I would miss him.

We decided to ditch the strangers and go to McDonald’s.  On the way, we passed an old man sitting on the ground and drinking soju by himself.  TTD didn’t see him and nearly stepped on him.  He shouted at her in angry Korean.  I can’t eat when I drink, so I let Toronto and TTD go into the McDonald’s and I sat down with the old drunk Korean guy.  He had a Dixie cup and he drank shots of soju from it.  I sat there chain smoking while he rambled on and on in Korean.  I would nod and sometimes say “ne.”  He pointed towards the McDonald’s every so often and his voice would get louder.  He seemed upset.  I didn’t know what he was talking about so I kept nodding.

How the hell did I end up here?  In Korea, on the ground with a drunk old Korean guy.  Where was Betty now, and who was living in our house?  It was all so confusing.  I couldn’t get a grasp on anything, and the old man kept talking.

Two days later, Toronto flew back to Canada.  He emailed me the other day to say that he just bought a new washroom cabinet and some pillow shams.

It seems like life has a funny way of moving on, even when you don’t really want it to.

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3 Bottle Soju Challenge

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My first week in Korea, I was bombarded with so many questions – Where are you from?  What is your blood type?  Why do you wear clothes that are too big for you? (That one was thanks to Hye Jeong, my coteacher at the public school, who also wanted to know if my shoes made my feet sweat.)  And then there was the question that Peter Teacher, aka Mr. Saw, would ask me over and over again throughout the course of the year:

How many bottles of soju can you drink?

Soju is Korea’s pride and joy, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice that comes in little green bottles, conveniently priced at around $2 a pop.  It’s Korea’s version of sake, kind of, and tastes like cheap vermouth.  I’ve seen Koreans drinking soju at all hours of the day and at many different occasions; when Koreans drink beer (called “mek-joo”), they top it off with soju, creating a dangerous mixture called “so-mek.”  Soju is quite strong, having around a 20% alcohol content.  Considering its strength and price, I believe Korea is the ideal place to go if you’re a drunk and you have no money.  Everywhere else is too expense.  Have you seen malt liquor prices these days!

Koreans go big when it comes to soju.  One doesn’t only have a shot or two.  That would be silly.  Koreans seem to prefer to get blackout drunk off it, then becoming dead weight and having to have their friends carry them away like a football player being taken off the field on a stretcher.

“William,” Peter Teacher would say with a crooked smile on his face, “how many bottles of soju can you drink?”

“Hmm,” I answered, “I’m not sure.  I’ve never really kept track of how much I was drinking.  Maybe three?”

“Oh no,” Peter Teacher said.  “Three bottles is very much.  I think you can only drink one.”

Peter Teacher ran the English department at the public school and was my superior.  He was arrogant and power hungry

Typical Soju Advertisement

and secretly I despised him.  This was okay, because he despised me too.  The dislike was mutual (and far reaching, as everyone in the school hated him and he, in turn, hated everyone in the school).  So when Peter Teacher said I could only drink one bottle of soju, I clearly had to take it upon myself to prove him wrong.  Yes, I weighed 130 lbs and looked like I’d been on Survivor for the last 5-7 years, but that didn’t matter.  Peter Teacher didn’t know how much alcohol I’d consumed since college, and how I consider myself to be pound-for-pound one of the world’s great drinkers.  The Manny Pacquiao of lushes, if you will.

On a Monday night in August I had nothing to do and no work the next day.  The time seemed right to take the 3 bottle soju challenge.  I went to the GS 25 by me and bought two bottles.  I’d drink those and see how I felt.  That Thursday I would be headed to Vietnam and I wanted to pick up a few things for the trip the next day.  Two bottles seemed like a nice amount to aim for – not as much as I prognosticated but more than the bastard Peter Teacher thought I could do.  I cracked open the first bottle and started drinking.

I was cheating somewhat, because I had orange juice to mix the soju with.  A real Korean drinker takes it straight.  By the time I’d downed the first bottle, I realized that I was already a bit tipsy and that my skin had turned bright red.  My chest had wicked blotches all over it, like it had the time I went to Thailand and got seriously sunburned.  I threw water on my face, as if I could wash the discoloration away.  Without pause, I opened bottle number two.  Native Americans are red, and that never stopped them from drinking (I kid the Native Americans).  To stay entertained, I put on the ESPN Fantasy Baseball Podcast.

“These guys are hilarious!” I shouted to myself, drinking and laughing as Nate Ravitz and Matt Berry talked about baseball stats.  “Listening to this is just like having two friends right in my own living room!”  I finished bottle number two and decided I should go all the way and get that third bottle.  If I said “three” then damn it, three it would be!  I felt what I call “scotch drunk,” because it’s the way I feel when I’ve had a lot of scotch.  My mind was focused, sharp, but my body was having problems.  I could feel myself weaving down the sidewalk on my way to the GS 25, and when I bought my third bottle of soju, saying thanks to the check out lady was nearly impossible.

I don’t recall much about the third bottle.  All I know is that I woke up the next day on my bed, fully dressed with

In spirit, we are brothers.

all the lights still on.  “My god,” I thought, “what time is it?”  It was noon.  The three chingus – meaning the three soju bottles – sat proudly on the table.  They were empty.  I had done it.  Two hours later I got out of bed, ran to the toilet and threw up.  I was still drunk and lightheaded.  My heart pounded.  Around five o’clock I threw up a second time.  I lay on my bed and talked to myself, “I can’t get up.  I can’t breathe.  I’m going to die.”

Why the fuck had I done this to myself?  I was 33 years old, and I had basically drunk myself into a coma because I wanted to tell an old Korean guy that I could handle three bottles of soju.  “I’m a cocky American,” I slurred.  “A damn cocky American.  Just like the stereotype.”

Somewhere Peter Teacher was shaking his head and laughing.  In a menacing and evil way, of course.  Maybe this was his intention all along; maybe he was trying to kill me.  “Don’t think like that,” I said to myself.  “You drank the three bottles.  You are one of life’s winners.”

Then I ran to the bathroom, because I had to puke again.

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