Japan and South Korea are two countries whose cuisines have garnered worldwide acclaim. Sushi, sashimi, and ramen are Japanese dishes served in every corner of the world. Likewise, Korean barbecue, kimchi, and bibimbap are quickly becoming worldwide favorites.
No cuisine is complete without an alcoholic beverage to accompany its smorgasbord of dishes, and both Korea and Japan have iconic spirits to boast about.
In North and South Korea, soju is the primary spirit. In Japan, sake reigns supreme.
While soju and sake have similar origins, they now differ widely in many aspects, from ingredients to taste.
If you’re wondering what the difference between soju vs. sake is, you’ll find a complete breakdown of taste, history, ingredients, and drinking traditions for each spirit below.
What Is Soju?
Soju is an alcoholic beverage that originated as a fermented rice wine distillate in Korea during the 13th century. Mongols who invaded Korea brought with them the knowledge of a specific distillation method they had learned from Persians to make the anise spirit known as Arak.
Koreans used this distillation process to create the first batches of grain-based soju in Kaesong. As the popularity of soju grew, soju varieties began to diversify, with the main region of production being Andong.
However, by the 1920s, soju made from rice was banned due to a rice shortage, so distilleries began using other starch-filled products like tapioca and sweet potatoes. Soju is now a product of grain or sweet potato distillate with water and sweetener.
There are countless brands of Soju from South Korea and beyond, with alcohol content ranging from 15% to 53%.
What Does Soju Taste Like?
Whether it’s a traditional fermented rice soju or a sweet potato soju, this Korean spirit is known for its smooth, crisp, and mildly sweet flavor profile.
Koreans refer to it as “Korean Vodka” because of its mild and soft aroma and smooth, neutral flavor palate. Also, like vodka, it is a clear spirit. It has a more full-bodied mouthfeel than vodka, with about half the alcohol content.
How To Order and Drink Soju
Traditionally, Soju is enjoyed neat from a chilled bottle in a shot glass. Another popular way is to make a beer cocktail known as Somaek, consisting of a few shots of soju blended with a light beer.
The way you enjoy Soju ultimately depends on the quality and alcoholic content of the soju. Premium, high-quality soju has a higher alcohol content and a smoother, crisper flavor profile that’s good for sipping. Lower-quality soju is better for Somaek, shooting, or drinking in a cocktail.
Soju is a great accompaniment to fatty foods and spicier dishes as it is a refreshing, cooling spirit. Korean food like bulgogi, fried chicken, and kimchi are good pairings for soju.
What Is Sake?
Sake is a rice wine made from fermented rice and is the national beverage of Japan. Sake is part of a broader East Asian tradition of fermented rice wines that date to 500 BCE.
Unlike grape-based wine, sake’s fermentation process mirrors that of beer since both beer and sake are made from fermented grains, water, and brewers yeast. Sake uses specific fungi known as Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, to aid in the fermentation process along with the yeast.
Sake’s alcohol by volume ranges from 15-22%, which is significantly higher than both grape wine and beer.
What Does Sake Taste Like?
Sake ranges from clear to cloudy to golden in color. Its flavor palate can be fruity and acidic, herbal and umami, spicy and floral, and everything in between. Most sake has a slightly sweet flavor, but there are plenty of dry sakes that are more on the savory, umami side.
The yeasts used in sake produce distinct aromas of banana, bubbly gum, and apple.
How To Order and Drink Sake
As Japan’s national drink, sake is a beloved everyday spirit to enjoy with sushi at a local Izakaya. It is also a ceremonial drink used in Shinto purification rituals as a material offering to the gods.
You can order sake hot, room temperature, or cold. Traditionally, sake is served in small glass cups, but you’ll also see it served in wine glasses or single-serve bottles. The premium sake varieties are best served chilled or at room temperature as heating them up will mute their flavor profile.
Sake is a popular drink to pair with fish, sushi, curries, and soups.
Soju vs. Sake: Key Differences
Soju and sake may both originate from Asian countries, using Asia’s primary grain, but there are many key differences that you’ll read about below.
Sake has always been composed of rice, koji, water, and yeast. Soju originated as a fermented rice distillate but now has a variety of different ingredients. You can still find fermented rice soju, but you can also find sweet potato soju, a blend of tapioca and sweet potato, and even wheat grain soju.
Sake is a fermented rice wine that uses a three-part fermentation process of blending rice, water, and koji with yeast in a single vat, adding more koji and rice to the vat over a three-day period. Sake then ferments for up to three months.
Unlike sake, soju is a distilled drink that uses multiple filtration and distillation processes to achieve a smoother, much more alcoholic beverage.
Sake has an alcohol content between 15-22%, while soju has an alcohol content that ranges from 17% all the way to 53%.
Sake has a fruity aroma and a diverse flavor palate that ranges from fruity to floral to herbal and savory. It typically has a dry finish.
Soju has a smooth, slightly sweet palate, neutral aroma, and crisp finish that mirrors vodka.
Sake is a Japanese alcohol while Soju is a Korean alcohol, so one fundamental difference is their distinct drinking traditions according to the cultures and cuisines of Korea and Japan.
In Japan, sake has both an everyday and ceremonial utility. In Korea, soju is simply a sipping spirit. Sake can be enjoyed hot, cold, or warm, while soju is always enjoyed chilled. Sake pairs better with fish and lighter fare, while soju works well with fatty foods like fried chicken or barbecue.
After reading all about the many characteristics and histories of sake and soju, here are a few frequently asked questions to help recap some of the key differences.
Is soju sweeter than sake?
Soju is typically sweeter than sake. Both sake and soju are known to have soft aromas and sweet flavor palates, but sake encompasses a much wider range of flavors.
Sake has a fruitier palate than soju. However, as a fermented beverage, you’ll get a stronger alcohol-forward or funky flavor in Japanese sake along with a drier finish than soju. Soju has a crisper, smoother palate thanks to the distillation process.
Is soju Japanese or Korean?
Soju is Korean, originating during the 13th century in the region of Kaesong, South Korea. The unique distilling process for soju came from the invading Mongols, who in turn learned it from the Persian tradition of distilling Arak, an anise spirit.
You’ll still see soju marketed as Arak-ju in this region as a nod to its origins. Koreans started distilling fermented rice wine but have since changed its main ingredient to sweet potatoes.
Japanese and Korean drinking traditions revolve around sake and soju, respectively. Sake is a fermented rice wine, while soju is a distilled spirit made from various different starches, water, and sweetener.
The key differences you’ll find when comparing soju vs. sake include production methods, ingredients, taste, and drinking traditions. Hopefully, this article has shed some light on these two distinct alcoholic beverages and sparked your interest in trying them to accompany your next dish of Korean fried chicken or Japanese sushi.