I'm Sorry, Bochan: Peter Drinks Korean Gutrot
Peter Tatara - April 12, 2007
I have a friend named Bochan. He's great, smart, angsty (a compliment in my book), and Korean. I mention Bochan now because I want to personally apologize to him for what will follow, a recollection of my first experience drinking soju.
I'm not a lush by any measure, but I have a creepy fascination with all things Asian, so when I buy alcohol, I'm predisposed to go with Yuengling or Yebisu. Or I was until I learned Yuengling wasn't Chinese beer -- but, in fact, from America's oldest brewery.
No longer able to drink Yuengling after I discovered it was originally crafted by German immigrant David G. Jungling (who anglicized his name as "Yuengling") and not some ancient Chinese secret known originally only to Emperor Qin Shi Huang, I visited my local liquor store looking for a replacement.
I like sake and I like plum wine, but my liquor cabinet (aka my broom closet) is already filled with both. I wanted to try something new. That's when I saw it. A plastic bottle, holding more than three liters, with an adorable little frog mascot smiling atop some Korean letters. I knew exactly what it was and that it had to be mine. This was a bottle of soju, a Korean alcohol of prolifically notorious standards. I had heard a lot about it (none of it good) and figured now was as good a time as any to give it a try.
Do I normally go about looking for things that are disgusting and/or likely to kill me and then gobble them down with a smile? No. However, I love natto, a fermented soybean dish from Japan famed in the West for having the consistency of snot, and I figured soju's infamy was overblown and my reaction to the stuff would be the same. It wasn't.
Soju, first introduced to Korea by Mongol invaders, is essentially a whiskey made from a combination or rice and barley, wheat, or sweet potatoes. It's also the national booze of Korea, as close to the country's culture as vodka is to Russia. And, like vodka, soju is a harsh mistress. The stuff goes down like fire, but while vodka has a clarity and a purity to it, after a shot of soju, you're left reeling as if you just mistakenly drank rubbing alcohol.
It's horrid. I'm sorry, Bochan, but the stuff tastes like bathwater spiked with lye. I wanted to like soju and did more shots than I should have to force myself to enjoy it, but after each one, after it went down, each and every gulp left an ugly, mechanical taste that's just not appealing at all. And while Wikipedia tells me over 3 billion bottles of soju are consumed annually in Korea, it's not because of quality but because -- confirming the legend -- it's cheap.
Now, I don't know what to do with it. I've offered it to friends, but they've laughed at me. I've tried cooking with the stuff, only to have anything it touches end up tasting like kerosene and mouth wash. Now, the soju is on the lowest rung of my broom closet with two other toxic bottles I save but only to pour when I have arch enemies over. (If you're curious, they're a four-year-old bottle of Mr. Boston's Blue Curacao and some coincidentally-Korean raspberry wine that taste respectively like ass coated in sugar and just plain ass.)
So, there it is. Bochan, I understand if you no longer want to be friends.