Soju and Shochu: Cousins in Craft Distilling

These two lighter spirits from East Asia have long traditions and remain popular in their home countries, but they are not the same. American drinkers are catching on. In the first of two articles, we look at the differences and then zoom in on craft soju.

Courtney Iseman Mar 28, 2024 - 11 min read

Soju and Shochu: Cousins in Craft Distilling Primary Image

Soju, the national drink of Korea, is the best-selling liquor in the world. Leading brand Jinro outpaces all other brands in all other categories, surpassing 100 million cases sold in 2022.

Shochu, meanwhile, is a staple of Japanese drinking culture. Often viewed as a close relative of soju—they’re both distilled grain- or starch-based spirits—shochu was once overshadowed by sake. But that was an earlier generation; shochu has outsold sake every year since 2003.

Almost inevitably—given the movement of tastes and ideas through immigration, travel, and the Internet and the curiosity of drinkers and bartenders always looking for something different—soju and shochu consumption are on the rise in the United States. Soju appears on Korean restaurant menus and is making its way onto others; shochu is becoming a mixologist’s staple for imparting cocktails with subtle, koji-driven umami notes.

Below, we consider the production approaches of two craft soju brands that got their start in the United States; in an upcoming article, we do the same with two producers of craft shochu. First, let’s compare the two traditions to better understand their differences.


Clarity on Soju and Shochu

While they’re both technically spirits, soju and shochu tend to be lighter than most. Shochu has a wide range but is typically 25 to 35 percent ABV, while soju is often around 20 percent; the popular Jinro Soju is 16.5 percent ABV, nearer to wine-strength. In the United States, that’s left them in a legally murky area. Recently, however, regulatory changes in California and New York have cleared a wider path for American drinkers to find them.

Previously, shochu had to be sold either under a hard-liquor license—more expensive and difficult to obtain—or labeled as soju, effectively erasing its cultural identity and distinctions. However, lobbying by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association helped bring about changes that allow shochu to be labeled as such and sold alongside beer and wine.

Much of the soju and shochu in the United States is imported from Korea and Japan. Gradually, however, some American craft producers have added them to their portfolios or else built entire brands around them; it’s a relatively uncrowded niche.

The most important thing to understand before diving into the processes behind these spirits, though, is the actual differences between them.

For starters, it may be useful for craft distillers to look past cheap, mass-produced soju and shochu, which are typically made from processed sugars and commodity starches. Craft soju and shochu, on the other hand, are often made from locally sourced grains such as barley or rice; shochu can also be made from sweet potato.


While many contemporary soju producers have moved to a process similar to that of vodka, the traditional method involves starting with a mixed culture called nuruk, which includes fungal mold, bacteria, and yeast and jumpstarts the saccharification of rice for fermentation. Shochu’s process, meanwhile, always includes this kind of starter; it’s called koji and is also used to make sake as well as soy sauce.

Korean producers can distill soju more than once, whereas authentic, artisanal shochu is single-distilled. For both spirits, craft iterations tend to skew higher in alcohol than the popular commercial brands.

Courtesy Tokki Soju.

Making Soju the Tokki Way

Brandon Hill was head distiller at Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn, New York, when a local Korean restaurant approached him about producing a traditional craft soju. That was the genesis of Tokki Soju, the brand he founded in 2016. A few years later, he and CEO Douglas Park moved their production to Chungju, South Korea. In 2022 they added a production facility in Rohnert Park, California, in Sonoma County, with an eye toward global distribution.

Hill’s focus is on making soju the traditional way, using rice and nuruk. While both koji and nuruk include the same species of mold—Aspergillus oryzae—Hill says the Korean version of the fermentation starter is predominantly made from wheat or barley cakes.

Hill uses only glutinous (sticky) rice, called chapssal in Korean. “This is a sweet varietal of rice that gives Tokki Soju a nice sweetness without having to add any sugars or additives,” he says. The rice is hulled and washed, but not polished as it is for sake. Hill and team mill the rice into flour, add it to the mash tun with water through a grist hydrator, and mix it into a slurry called beombok.


It takes 450 kilos of rice for a 27-hecto fermentation. Hill prefers a thinner slurry, about 55 liters of water for every kilo of rice. “Our fermenters are 3,200 liters and require 15 to 20 percent head space to ferment out properly,” he says. “Rice—especially sticky rice—contains a lot more fermentable sugars than most cereal grains.“

Once the slurry is cooked, they transfer the mash to custom-built stainless-steel jacketed fermentors to cool to 77°F (25°C), then they add their propagated nuruk-and-yeast culture. “We do this because this is our optimal temperature for our nuruk and yeast to thrive for maximizing the yield of our fermentation,” Hill says. “If the mash is too hot, you risk denaturing the nuruk and [creating] off-flavors from the yeast. Too cold will stunt propagation and risk killing the yeast and nuruk.”

Soju fermentations can go anywhere from a week to many months depending on the style and alcohol content desired. “During the fermentation process, you can continue to add rice and feed the culture more fermentable sugars,” Hill says, to end up with a stronger product.

The soju mash separates into two layers. The top is called the chungju layer, Hill says. It has a higher alcohol content and is clearer. The bottom is the takju layer, which includes most of the rice sediment. Hill mixes both for consistency—the result is known as wonju—and he distills both together.

Tokki has a custom copper column and pot-hybrid still that can be used for multiple styles of distillation. Hill does a two-part distillation for soju. “With Tokki Soju, we wanted to stay true to the traditional Korean way of brewing and distilling,” he says, “but bring the recipes to a modern world with more advanced technology and equipment to elevate the soju category.”


Hill says the Tokki team is “very particular” about what they collect off the still. They collect the highest quality soju from the hearts—using only 35 percent of the run—and they do not add any chemicals or additives. It comes off the still around 80 percent ABV, and they use RO water to slowly proof it down over time.

Aging is not common with soju. However, playing on the grain-bill connections and process similarities between soju and whiskey, Hill added barrel-aged sojus to the Tokki portfolio. Together with the traditional, unaged sojus, they can offer a range of strengths. Tokki Soju Black Label is 40 percent ABV, while White Label is 23 percent. Gold Label and Garnet Label are the barrel-aged versions, both bottled at 46 percent ABV.

Courtesy West 32.

Making Soju with West 32

Another craft soju producer got its start in New York—West 32, founded by Dan Lee and Maxwell Fine, and named for the street in Manhattan that runs right through Koreatown.

West 32 produces soju in what could be described as a more contemporary way. (“Korean tradition, American craft,” is the tagline.) Their own experimentation led them to settle on corn; amid different types of rice, barley, and potatoes, Lee says corn had the most neutral taste and smoothest profile. Barley also was six or seven times the price of corn, Fine says, and that challenged their goal of offering a locally made product at an approachable price point.

Yankee Distillers in Clifton Park, New York, produces the soju for West 32. Yankee cofounder and distiller Matt Jager says it begins with a “pretty common process of milling [and] mashing in the corn, tending the fermentation in massive, temperature-controlled, stainless-steel fermentation tanks, and then moving the fermented mash into a column-distillation process.” The overall method, he says, is not unlike that of whiskey or grain vodka.

Jager says the distillation is done with atmospheric pressure. “I’ve seen some gins or other flavorful products tinker with vacuum distillation, for the benefits it can provide in flavor extraction, but we’re going for something neutral and delicate,” he says.

That goal of “neutral and delicate” is also why West 32’s production process includes triple carbon filtration. “I use organic, coconut-husk carbon in the filtration process, and I use gravity to move the product over the carbon very slowly, for a really long time,” Jager says. It takes “usually two to four weeks, depending on batch size, [and produces] a beautifully polished spirit, absent of any of the impurities that might remain after the distillation process.”

The resulting soju is soft, faintly sweet, and “just lovely on the palate,” he says. “It’s easy to forget that it contains alcohol at all, and that is definitely not most people’s experience with soju.”

West 32 Original Soju is bottled at 19.9 percent ABV. Like Tokki, the brand has added a barrel-aged version—the Reserve, bottled at 32 percent ABV after aging a bit more than a year in American white-oak barrels previous used for Yankee’s bourbon.

Courtney Iseman is a freelancer writer focused on the craft-beverage space, based in Brooklyn, New York.