Is American soju 'watered down'?

Twitter makes it so much easier to “eavesdrop” on conversations of random strangers, which I do via a list of search terms related to Korean cuisine. For every person who asks a question, many others have the same one bouncing around their minds. Even random comments that don’t ask a question, but should ask a question, sometimes catch my eye.

SylviaKoss tweeted to Steven Chappell, aka thegrammarnazi:

#Soju can be sold in Calif. and New York, but it can only contain 25% alcohol or less. In #Japan and #Korea it contains 45%.

Mr. Chappell replied,

@SylviaKoss Then it’s not Soju. It’s watered-down Soju. #Soju #Japan #Korea

Is that shared soju experience the same in Seoul as it is in LA or NYC? (Leana photo, creative commons license, flickr)

Yet neither asked, “Why is the alcohol content of soju imported into the United States lower?” It’s another one of those answers that doesn’t fit well into a 140-character tweet. It has to do with whether you consider soju and Japanese sake as a rice wine or as distilled alcohol. (Some soju is made from sweet potatoes, tapioca and grains in place of or in addition to rice.)

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau considers soju a distilled alcoholic beverage. In August, a 42-year-old Virginia soju importer pleaded guilty to smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion for claiming soju was “rice wine,” avoiding nearly $102,000 in excise taxes on $2 million worth of shipments. Under U.S. law, distilled spirits are taxed at $13.50 per proof gallon, while wine is taxed at $1.07, $1.57 or $3.15 a gallon, depending on alcohol content.

But in 1998, the California Legislature gave soju the same status as beer and wine. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Act Section 23398.5 limits what can be sold as “soju” under the more permissive on-premise beer and wine liquor license. It can’t have more than 24 percent of alcohol by volume. That’s the basis of Koss’ tweet to Chappell.

Additionally, soju “wine” must be made in Korea, so there’s no such thing as an American soju. Even Ku soju, one of the most marketing-savvy soju brands, is imported from Korean liquor chaebol (conglomerate) Doosan.

New York state adopted similar provisions in 2002.

Korean food culture is closely tied with consumption of alcoholic beverages, largely soju, 북분자주 bukbunjajoo (blackberry alcohol) and beer. Sharing a meal with friends without alcohol is virtually anathema, absent religious abstention.

California and New York both have large Korean-American communities and lobbied hard for the relaxed legal definition of soju. That allows Korean restaurants to sell soju without the bureaucratic burden of procuring a hard-liquor license first.

But there was a catch. Producers had to reduce the alcohol content in U.S.-bound bottles from 45 percent to 24 percent, just a little more than the kick of sweet, fortified wines such as Port.

After these laws passed, non-Korean restauranteurs discovered they could also take advantage of the loophole. In California, a hard-liquor permit can cost $6,000 to $12,000. To avoid those high costs, restauranteurs set their sights on soju as a less expensive alternative to jumping through all the hoop necessary to obtain a spirits license. They could sell cocktails made with soju instead of tequila or vodka.

Rather than “watered down,” U.S. soju’s lower alcohol content and lower caloric content of soju cocktails — about half the alcohol of vodka — is a marketable selling point for many bars and restaurants.

Keep in mind when you travel between the two countries. Several bottles of “American soju” don’t pack the same punch as the equivalent volume of Korean soju. Those two or three bottles of soju that leave you blissfully buzzed in L.A. might leave you puking your guts up on the sidewalks of Seoul.


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6 thoughts on “Is American soju 'watered down'?”

  1. The 45% soju you’re referring to is Andong soju, right? The strongest stuff around? If we head to any convenience store in Seoul, we’re more likely to find the 18.5% to 20% range (unless something has seriously changed in the past few months)… Assuming soju imported to the US is 25%, that makes it STRONGER in the US…

    Then again, I haven’t had a bottle of the stuff in months…

  2. 24% is the legal threshold for soju to be sold as “wine” in CA and NY and it’s been my experience in CA that most of the soju sold here is between 20-24%, so the people I was “ease dropping” upon didn’t quite have the high end % right.

    However, CA doesn’t have nearly the selection of soju that most Korean grocery and convenience stores carry. Korea has many smaller, regional players that we never see in CA, such as Green (I think I saw it once, but very hard to find), White or pretty much any soju that you may have seen in your travels outside of Seoul that you’ve never seen before (or since). 

    The point I was trying to drive home is that it isn’t watered down, whether it’s 20% or 45% it is soju. But you should also read the label and know what you’re drinking, especially if you are a tourist and not the one buying.

    • I do find the legal loophole interesting, but I’m confused by the intention of the article. Like Chris said, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in the alcoholic contents of the stuff that is being sold in Korea versus the U.S. There is a huge difference between common, supermarket/pub soju (usually around 20%) and regional specialties such as Andong soju (between 35-45%) in distribution, accessibility, price and alcohol content. Any bar on the “sidewalks of Seoul” would boast the same, if not lower, alcoholic content as the bottles sold abroad (so contrary to your statement, they do “pack the same punch”).

  3. You do realize that Soju in Korea is only 20%. So if i read this article right they were upping the alcohol content to ship it to the US.  I live in Korea and soju averages around a 20% alcohol content.  It’s like drinking water compared to whiskey or tequila.

  4. Thanks for the research. I was trying to figure out what alcohol content is allowed in New York restaurants while looking for soju.. Your article is very helpful.

  5. The majority of Soju drank in korea is similar to the american variant. There are actual differences between the two, because of FDA regulations in America. It would been interesting had research been done to find the actual differences between the typical soju that us much more vastly consumed between the nations.


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