It is probably inevitable, with the explosive spread of South Korean popular culture across Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia in the past decade, that along with K-pop music and snazzy sexual dance moves comes its drinking practices that always involves copious amounts of soju (소주) and really bad beer… usually mixed together.
In fact, the so-maek (소맥) – better known to non-Koreans as the ‘soju bomb’, which is similar to a boilermaker – sees a full shot of the distilled spirit dropped into beer and then downed in a single chug. A typical Korean drinking session requires you to down a soju shot, or a soju bomb, for every participant present – and when that involves cheap or low quality alcohol and a large party, you can imagine things don’t exactly end very well.
Soju started as a Korean traditional alcoholic beverage from the late of the Goryeo period (918-1392AD) and was originally known as ‘sul’ (술), made specially for royalty. The Koreans learned distilling from the Mongols, who had themselves learned it from the Persians they invaded.
Yet the truth is that the soju of today bears very little semblance to traditional soju of old; indeed, Korea is now rife with the mass-made, chain-distilled version made from a multitude of different starches – wheat, rice, barley and sweet potatoes, amongst others – known as diluted soju that’s nothing like the product made with the ancient single distillation method.
But Hwayo (화요), a premium quality soju made by the Kwangjuyo Group, intends to change the perception that soju is a generally poor quality spirit and aims to restore the drink to its rightful place as a beverage fit for kings. Derived from 100% Korean rice from Yeoju in Gyeonggi province and pure water from 150m underground using a single distillation process over very low heat and pressure, the distilled spirit – unlike its poorer counterparts – then sees the insides of a traditional onggi (옹기), or earthernware vessel, for a maturing process. Of course, since Kwangjuyo Group also happens to be one of South Korea’s premier makers of said onggi vessels, we reckon there’s at least a little self interest in making soju in that most traditional way.
Hwayo is distributed here in Singapore by Gain Brands, which will carry three Hwayo products (the number corresponds to its ABV):
- Hwayo 17°
- Hwayo 25°
- Hwayo 41°
“Instead of your regular casual Korean eateries we’re really targeting high-end restaurants, bars and lounges with Hwayo,” shares Michelle Fisher, director of Gain Brands. “With the varying proof offered by the different Hwayo products we believe that mixologists can use it to mix in cocktails,” she adds.
Indeed at their recommended retail prices – $29.90 for Hwayo 17°; $45.90 for Hwayo 25°; and $79.90 for Hwayo 41° – Hwayo can be a cheaper alternative for vodka, which is likely to appeal to bar owners looking to push margins and at the same time introduce creative new soju-based cocktails to their cocktail menus. May as well tap on the ongoing K-pop craze, yes?
Hopefully Gain Brands will in the near future bring in the Hwayo X-Premium, which takes its Hwayo 41° and further matures it in an ex-bourbon American oak barrel for another five years. That should make for quite an interesting sipping drink.
Public service announcement: soju bombs made with Hwayo is equally lethal compared to its inferior counterparts, as I painfully found out.