Soju is a distilled rice spirit coming directly from Korea and is a crucial aspect of its culture and history.
There are specific ways to drink it, complete with social rules and taboos. It’s such a hit throughout the country that there are hundreds of brands with thousands of flavors.
The list of the top 13 Soju brands below come from or are a favorite in various places around South Korea. For the typical liquor connoisseur, they’re sure to pique your interest.
Each offers something different, but all create a special rice spirit people flock to and love.
13 Soju Brands Overview
- Hite Jinro
- Lotte Chilsung
- Chungbuk Soju
- Andong Soju
- Bohae Brewery
- Han Jan
Most Popular Soju Brands
1. Hite Jinro
- Province/City: Seoul
- Popular Varieties: Chamisul (Fresh & Original)
- Tasting Notes: Clean, light and crisp
- Alcohol Content: (Fresh) 16.9% or (Original) 20.1% ABV
Of all the soju available, “Chamisul” by Hite Jinro is number one. In fact, many Koreans refer to it as “national soju.”
After the lifting of the 1965 restrictions, Hite Jinro quickly became a hit in Seoul. They use only 100% natural ingredients and vegetable additives.
Plus, they have a great filtration method, processing the spirit through bamboo charcoal four times. Hite Jinro offers two varieties: Original and Fresh.
Both soju basically taste the same. However, the one with the lowest ABV, Fresh, allows the company to advertise in public between 10 am and 7 pm.
There’s a law in South Korea that forbids liquors with an alcohol content of 17% or higher to advertise between those times.
- Province/City: South Gyeongsang & Ulsan
- Popular Varieties: Good Day
- Tasting Notes: Fresh, subtle and crisp
- Alcohol Content: 16.9% ABV
Sourcing their ingredients from the mountains, Muhak produces an incredibly popular soju throughout Korea called, “Good Day.”
They incorporate alkaline mineral water from Jirisan and add amino acids to boost health benefits.
However, it’s a favorite soju among many university students due to its affordable price.
3. Lotte Chilsung
- Province/City: Gangwon Province
- Popular Varieties: Chum Churum (Original, Mild & Rich)
- Tasting Notes: Smooth, sweet and clean
- Alcohol Content: (Original) 16.9%, (Mild) 16.5% or (Rich) 21% ABV
As the second most popular soju brand in Korea, Lotte Chilsung manufactures “Chum Churum” and it comes in three types: Original, Mild & Rich. “Chum Churum” means “like the first time,” and it intends to encourage each day’s treatment as a new start.
Lotte Chilsung uses alkaline water enriched with minerals in their products.
Not only does it provide for a smooth drink but helps reduce hangovers. Many Koreans suggest this for dishes such as bulgogi or kalbi.
4. Chungbuk Soju
- Province/City: North Chungcheong
- Popular Varieties: Cool Cheongpung
- Tasting Notes: Very sweet, crisp and clean
- Alcohol Content: 17.5%
Chungbuk Soju is a brand that produces a classic rice spirit. But, there’s a history and legend behind it.
Apparently, King Sejong used this to treat an eye infection while inventing the Korean alphabet, called “Hangeul.” While this is only available in North Chungcheong, there are some sightings of it available in the US.
What makes this brand a little different is that they focus their recipe around complete health.
They incorporate asparagine, an essential amino acid, as a liver protectant and detoxifier. It’s delicious and goes well with kimchi and traditional BBQ.
- Province/City: Busan
- Popular Varieties: C1 Soju
- Tasting Notes: Incredibly smooth and clean
- Alcohol Content: 18% ABV
Daesun’s distillery is the largest in Busan and their C1 soju is some of Korea’s best. This comprises natural bedrock water from the peaks of Mount Samgak-san.
The mineral composition translates to a clean and smooth aftertaste. Plus, Daesun also includes aspartic acid. This amino acid helps the body feel better after a night of drinking.
- Province/City: Daejeon & Chungcheong
- Popular Varieties: O2Linn
- Tasting Notes: Light, invigorating, clean
- Alcohol Content: 16.9% ABV
To reduce hangover recovery time, Mackiss dissolves oxygen into their O2Linn variety of soju.
Also known as “oxygen soju,” the company claims it will help people wake up 30 minutes earlier. However, recent rebranding efforts renamed it “Now We Are” (Yije Woorin).
The invigorating effect coupled with its light and clean taste makes it a favorite among many Korean women all over the country.
While it is a bit more expensive, students like this around exam time.
- Province/City: Daegu & North Gyeongsang
- Popular Varieties: Delicious Charm
- Tasting Notes: Sweet with a bite
- Alcohol Content: 16.9% ABV
Founded in 1957, Kumbokju produces several varieties of soju. Their most famous, however, is “Delicious Charm.”
This dominates the region around North Gyeongsang and most restaurants serve this around Daegu.
They use only pure grains that include a mix of barley, tapioca, sweet potatoes and rice from the countryside.
What makes this different than others is how they add xylitol, an artificial sweetener.
- Province/City: Jeju Island
- Popular Varieties: Original
- Tasting Notes: Smooth, velvety, crisp, clean and refreshing
- Alcohol Content: 21% (mild version 17%)
Named after the highest peak in Korea, Hallasan filters its soju through charcoal via the trees on the mountain.
They use freezing techniques to remove impurities and unrefined aromas, making it the smoothest soju on this list.
Hallasan has several varieties, all numbered with their no. 3, 17 and 21 being quite popular. The crispy velvety finish on the tongue makes it a good companion for seafood and raw fish.
Be careful, though, you hardly taste it, and the alcohol content is higher, which means it will hit you very quickly.
9. Andong Soju
- Province/City: Andong
- Popular Varieties: Myeongin
- Tasting Notes: Strong, clean, crisp and bold
- Alcohol Content: 45% ABV
For an experience in history and tradition, Andong Soju is a timestamp of Korea’s journey with this distilled rice spirit.
They use only traditional methods to produce it, incorporating the highest quality rice and pure, fresh water.
The beverage has a remarkable flavor with a delightful, subtle aroma. It’s the strongest soju mentioned here, coming in at 45% ABV, which is pretty stiff.
What’s great about Andong Soju is that its flavor improves the more you drink it. The taste layers on the tongue, giving a slightly different palette as the night rolls on.
10. Lee Gang Ju
- Province/City: Jeolla & Hwanghae Provinces
- Popular Varieties: Jeonju
- Tasting Notes: Earthy, sweet and fruity
- Alcohol Content: 38% ABV
Lee Gang Ju is one of the finest and more luxurious soju spirits on this list. Actually, this is the oldest soju distiller, as they’ve been in operation since the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910).
It also appears in several historic documents like the Dongguk Sesigi (Seasonal Customs in Korea) and Gyeongdo Japi (Miscellaneous Records of the Capital Hanyang).
Comprised entirely of rice using traditional methods, they use a compilation of flavors that are fun to taste.
Their Jeonju contains things like turmeric, malt, cinnamon, ginger and pear. The characteristic taste is inherent in the name: Lee is “pear” while Gang translates to “ginger.”
Technically, it is a soju but it’s more like wine in a similar vein as sake. All other sojus mentioned here are often more like vodka.
However, Lee Gang Ju truly sits between vodka and wine.
11. Bohae Brewery
- Province/City: Jeollanam-do, Gwangju and Jeonnam
- Popular Varieties: Yipsejoo (or Ipsaeju)
- Tasting Notes: Maple-flavored, highly sweet and crisp
- Alcohol Content: 19% ABV
Bohae Brewery makes one of the better selling soju brands in Korea: Yipsejoo. The name translates to “leaf alcohol” and this is the crowning jewel of the company.
This soju features the natural flavoring of organic Canadian maple syrup.
It has a super sweet taste that makes it great for mixed cocktails or as a dessert drink. While some sojus will provide a bitter taste in the back of the throat, Yipsejoo does not.
They have a regular type of soju too, but the maple-flavored one is the most sought after.
12. Han Jan
- Province/City: Unknown
- Popular Varieties: Original, Apple, Mandarin, Ginger, Honey
- Tasting Notes: Light, crisp and very sweet
- Alcohol Content: 16% ABV
Han Jan’s many varieties of soju go beyond the popular ones like apple, mandarin, original, ginger and honey.
They also have watermelon, lemon, peach, strawberry, yogurt and a host of other flavors.
Like Lee Gang Ju, this is a soju that sits somewhere in the middle between a vodka and a wine, having the classification as a fortified wine.
This is ideal for enjoying with food since it’s very light and doesn’t inhibit the flavors of any given dish.
Plus, it makes a fun addition to any cocktail, adding flavor and pizzazz to the palette. However, this soju among the list of others mentioned here has the lowest alcohol content.
- Province/City: Gyeonggi-do & Seoul
- Popular Varieties: 17, 25, 41 & 53
- Tasting Notes: Rich, well-balanced, soft, and smooth
- Alcohol Content: 17% to 35% (depending on the variety)
The name Hwayo comes from the Korean word for soju.
You can break it down into the two Hangeul characters of the word: “hwa” means “fire and “yo” translates loosely to a “high and noble object.”
The character, aroma and overall taste of their sojus strive to create the “most precious things from the most basic elements,” according to the company.
Hwayo takes their soju varieties a step further by mixing in their X.Premium Whisky to some degree.
This method literally puts them between a vodka-like spirit and a fine white wine. It makes an excellent substitute for recipes calling for vodka or gin.
A Note about Soju & Its History
In 1965, the South Korean government put heavy restrictions on Soju production to control rice shortages in the country.
They limited it to the region of Andong and the amount of allowable rice in the spirit, which forced a reduction of the alcohol content.
These regulations made it difficult for independent distillers to make their Soju in one city and offer it to other places in the country.
Shortly, to the dismay of the citizens, the alcohol content range lowered to 17% and 30%.
Prior to this, most soju had an alcohol by volume (ABV) content of about 40%. Since these regulations are no longer in place, there’s more freedom in distilleries.
Today, you can find soju back to up 40% ABV or higher, and every city, province, or region has its most beloved brand.
Soju’s Taste & How to Drink It
A typical, unflavored soju tastes something akin to vodka. However, because rice is the mash, it’s a little sweeter than many vodkas.
Also, there’s not a bite or sharp taste like there can be with certain vodkas. However, depending on the distilling process, some sojus can come off more like wine akin to sake than vodka.
For the uninitiated, sake is a rice wine specifically from Japan. While sake is common throughout Korea, it’s not quite the same as soju.
So, when a soju takes on the characteristics of wine, it sits on the higher and more luxurious end of the liquor spectrum in terms of quality and price.
Soju is a great accompaniment to many Korean dishes and pairs excellent with traditional BBQ. This is due to the low-bodied taste soju has.
The sweetness is ideal for counteracting the spiciness that’s integral to Korean cuisine. People usually drink soju neat, but it also makes a great mixer for cocktails.
These 13 soju brands all have something delicious and unique to offer. They run the gamut between being light with a low alcohol content to having a rich rice flavor that’s strong and robust.
Each one is excellent with a variety of foods and traditional dishes appropriate to Korean cuisine.
However, most of them do run on the sweet side of things.
So, if you don’t like a sugary taste to your alcohol, it’s best to either mix a cocktail with it or ensure you enjoy it with grilled or spicy foods.
Regardless, soju offers a great way to enjoy a taste of Korea at home.