Much like the popular Japanese distilled alcohol shochu, the Korean distilled beverage soju is actually quite similar to its Japanese counterpart yet has some distinct differences. Native to South Korea, soju is traditionally made from rice just like shochu. However modern soju brewers also incorporate other starches such as wheat, barley, and sweet potatoes. The starkest difference between shochu and soju is that soju is much sweeter due to the sugars that are added during the manufacturing process. Clear in color, Korean soju typically varies in alcohol content from 18.5% to 45%, with 20% being the most common.
So why is shochu confused with soju so often, especially in the United States? Well, the liquor licensing laws in New York and California exempt the sale of "soju" relating to the sale of other distilled spirits, which allows beer and wine businesses to sell it without requiring the more expensive license normally required for most distilled beverages. The big catch is that soju must be labeled as such and contain less than 25% ABV. The majority of Japanese shochu has an ABV of 25%, so overseas distributers lower the ABV to 24% to bypass the need for a hard liquor license. This is why we see so many distillers decreasing the ABV and exporting shochu as “soju” to the United States.
In all actuality, it comes down to the fact that selling shochu requires a hard liquor license, whereas soju doesn’t require it. Interestingly enough, soju is the world’s top selling liquor by volume. The word soju is derived from the Chinese word “shaojiu” which directly translates to “burned liquor.” To further confirm the many similarities these two beverages share, the word shochu also derives from the term “shaojiu.”
Overall, soju and shochu are different beverages from different countries but do indeed share many of the same characteristics. What makes the situation much more confusing is how importers and distributers take advantage of the liquor licensing rules, selling Japanese shochu as a Korean soju.