Once every week I meet Boyfriend at his office and we eat lunch together at a restaurant close by, after which he goes back to work and I come home. (Aww, cute, right? Right? Wrong. Boyfriend works in downtown Oakland, which has some of the best Asian restaurants in the Bay Area. That’s the reason I trek all the way there in the middle of a weekday. But don’t tell him that.)
The other day we were eating at Sobo Ramen, and as I greedily emptied the pitcher of peach yogurt soju into my glass, Boyfriend (who hadn’t touched the drink) said:
“Did you know soju is the highest selling liquor in the world? Smirnoff vodka is a distant second.”
Soju is a Korean distilled beverage usually made from rice or wheat, and often compared to vodka in taste. Drinks International, a British publication, releases an annual list of top selling alcohol in the world, and at more that 60 million cases of chamisul soju sold per annum, one brand – Jinro – has been at the top of that list for several years. Smirnoff vodka is usually second at around 25 million cases. Wait – what’s that you ask? Who’s at #3? Yet another brand of soju – Lotte liquor – with chum churum soju selling about 24 million cases. (And not that it matters, but Bacardi rum manages to squeeze into the top five, with about 20 million barrels a year.)
So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that soju doesn’t have the international appeal of Smirnoff vodka or Bacardi rum, and is mostly consumed only in South Korea. (And maybe North Korea. Who knows what goes on in North Korea.)
Vodka is among the most popular alcoholic drinks in Russia, large parts of Europe, as well as the US. Rum, similarly, enjoys great popularity in the US as well as South America. Soju, on the other hand, has very, very slim international sales. And even in those cases – such as in East Asian restaurants in the US – it is mostly served as a highly dilute, syrupy cocktail.
Logically, there’s only one conclusion you can draw from this: South Korea loves to drink. Look at this map from The Economist:
Look for the dark red countries – that’s where they have the highest per capita consumption of alcohol. That’s Russia, most of eastern Europe, parts of western and northern Europe, and that little red spot dangling off the eastern edge of Asia – South Korea.
Now here are the numbers: Moldova, at 18.2 liters of alcohol per person per year, is the highest per capita consumer. Czech Republic, at around 16 liters, is a close second. So it’s obviously unfair to say that South Koreans are the biggest drinkers in the world, because they clearly aren’t. But even if we consider per capita consumption of alcohol in South Korea at the minimum possible of 12.5 liters (as per the above map), it still explains the mind boggling popularity of soju.
Population. Multiply 12.5 liters by the total number of South Koreans over the age of fifteen, and BAM! You get this:
Suddenly, the little country dangling off the eastern edge of Asia doesn’t look that little anymore, eh? And Moldova? What Moldova?
In South Korea’s defense, though, soju isn’t the only thing in the category of “I’m-#1-in-the-world-but-no-one-outside-South-Korea-knows-me.” Naneun Ggomsuda (I’m a Petty-Minded Creep), with over 11 million listeners, is the most popular podcast in the world. Rain, a lissome, teary-eyed R&B singer with the most well-coiffed hair I have ever seen (Seriously, dude! Hair gel? Spray? How??) is the most popular pop star in the world.
Of course, Rain’s popularity isn’t going to last forever. Stephen Colbert is onto him.