Soju Want to Try Something New?

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Community Tavern in Chicago is offering rotating cocktails that rely on a spirit not often drunk in the U.S.: Soju.

Since the venue changed hands 18 months ago, the menu changed to feature a lot of Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese touches, and the owner requested a soju cocktail on the menu.

Soju is a clear, colorless, low-alcohol distilled beverage from Korea; sake, by contrast, is brewed—and is more of a wine—while soju is more like vodka.

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The owner’s request led to the creation of Soju Think You Can Dance, which includes just West 32 Soju (from an American company) and simple syrup. Since then, there have been four other cocktails on the menu, including Soju & Cider, a cider-based take on a somaek (a beer cocktail made with beer and soju). This uses West 32 Reserve Soju, which is barrel-aged (an untraditional process for soju) and works well with Virtue Brut Cider, which is barrel-aged as well. The drink also includes honey syrup and is served in a highball, garnished with a slice of Korean apple and a spray of Fine Reserve Calvados.

Soju, says bar manager Rachel Miller, is a very versatile drink to work with, though she’s found customers tend to like it with sour flavors.

The downside to soju, she says, is it’s difficult to source. “I think it’s because of the popularity of Japanese whisky, so a lot of specialty Japanese distributors bring in that, and sake, and shochu, but for soju you often have to go through Korean grocery distributors.” For ease, she decided to buy West 32, which she sources through her wine vendor.

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West 32 is unflavored, she says, “so you can take the flavor in any direction you want, and it goes well with any of the dishes on the menu. It’s lower ABV (20 percent) so easier to pair with food.” The Reserve version is 32 percent ABV.

The soju cocktails are popular, Miller says, with cocktail drinkers who come in not knowing exactly what they want to drink and are willing to try new things. And Korean guests in particular are excited to see them, she adds.

They cost $9 to $10, which is inline with the bar’s other cocktails, which range as high as $12. Soju, Miller says, can be expensive since it’s difficult to source, and West 32 is more expensive because it’s small production with artisanal pricing, but less expensive than other spirits like sake. Beverage costs on the soju cocktails hover around 18 percent, which is on the low end of what Miller’s shooting for—her goal is 18 to 22 percent.

Morris Ramen in Madison, WI, has served soju since it opened in December 2016. It also uses West 32, as well as the company’s Reserve soju.

The soju is mostly served in cocktails and there are two, though they change seasonally. Currently on the menu are two lighter offerings for summer: My Fair Lady ($9), made with West 32 soju, lemon juice, BroVo Pink Rosé Vermouth, and housemade lavender syrup; and Bee’s Bottom, which includes West 32 Reserve soju, Carpano Bianco vermouth, housemade ginger syrup and yuzu sake. The latter is so called, says bar manager Becka Simms, because “some magic happens” with the mix of ingredients, “and it tastes like honey.”

Simms tries to keep beverage costs at 20 percent to 25 percent, and these cocktails run around 25 percent, though the spirits are generally cheaper than others, she says.

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A more warming cocktail was on Morris Ramen’s winter menu. Sweater Weather included West 32 soju, BroVo Pretty Vermouth, housemade spiced Korean pear syrup (with anise, clove and cinnamon) and lemon juice.

Like all soju drinks, these are lower in alcohol, which works well because lower-alcohol and alcohol-free cocktails are popular, Simms says.

Soju—and the cocktails containing them—go well with Morris Ramen’s food, which is Japanese and Korean inspired. “Soju is clean and crisp, and our food is rich and flavorful, so they really complement each other.”

Soju’s also drunk chilled and Simms has played around with infusing it. One iteration was flavored with chilies so it’s “kind of spicy,” and is still available. For that version, she uses a Korean soju, Jinro. Customers also order soju by the 350mL bottle to share over dinner.

Soju Think You Can Dance cocktail at Community Tavern in Chicago, IL, made with West 32 Soju.

Soju Think You Can Dance

Recipe and image (left, rear) courtesy of Community Tavern

  • 2.5 oz. West 32 Soju 
  • 0.5 oz. Simple syrup 

Sour apple (diced apples soaked in lemon juice) to garnish

Shake briefly, add 2-3 oz. sparkling brut rosé. Pour all into a stemmed beer glass and top up with ice. Garnish with sour apple.

Soju & Cider

Recipe courtesy of Community Tavern

  • 1.5 oz. West 32 Reserve Soju
  • 7 oz. Draft cider
  • 0.5 oz. Honey syrup
  • 1 slice Korean apple to garnish
  • 1 spray Fine Reserve Calvados to garnish

Build in a highball glass and garnish with one slice of Korean apple and one spray of Fine Reserve Calvados.

My Fair Lady cocktail at Morris Ramen in Madison, WI, made with West 32 Soju.

My Fair Lady

Recipe and image courtesy of Morris Ramen

  • 2 oz. West 32 Soju
  • 0.75 oz. Lemon juice
  • 0.5 oz. BroVo Pink rosé vermouth
  • 0.5 oz. Housemade lavender syrup

Shake all ingredients together and strain into a wine glass.

Bee's Bottoms cocktail at Morris Ramen in Madison, WI, made with West 32 Reserve Soju.

Bee's Bottoms

Recipe and image courtesy of Morris Ramen

  • 1.5 oz. West 32 Reserve Soju
  • 0.75 oz. Carpano Bianco vermouth
  • 0.5 oz. Housemade ginger syrup
  • 0.5 oz. Yuzu sake

Shake all ingredients together and strain into a vintage cocktail glass.

Sources

Community Tavern

Morris Ramen

West 32 Soju

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