At Locust Point, they'll be turning rice into soju to sip at the end of the day


THE BUSINESS NEWS was that the defunct Procter & Gamble Co. soap-making factory in Locust Point was scheduled to be transformed into a plant distilling a Korean liquor called soju. The culinary question was, what was this stuff called soju?

I made a few phone calls, took a few notes, and emptied a few glasses. Soju turned out to be a clear, vodka-like liquor. Sometimes it is made from sweet potatoes, sometimes rice. Usually it is sipped with food and friends. At 24 percent alcohol by volume, it is mild-mannered compared to most 40 percent alcohol vodkas.

Some folks have described its flavor as "mellow." To me it tasted pretty much like straight alcohol. But after downing two glasses, I did feel mellow.

The soju I sipped was made from sweet potatoes. But the kind that will be made in Locust Point will be made from rice, according to Chang Lie, president of A&E; International Ltd., the enterprise which is taking over the Baltimore plant.

Korean distilleries once used rice to make soju, Lie told me during a telephone interview. The manufacturers switched to sweet potatoes years ago when the price of rice rose in Korea, he said. If all goes according to his plans, Baltimore's old soap plant will be transforming shiploads of cheaper American rice into bottles of "premium soju," sometime in 1997, Lie said.

An employee of Eastern Liquor Distributors Inc., the Columbia wholesaler that handles soju, estimated that already about 100 Maryland stores carry the liquor. At one, Padonia Liquors in Timonium, a wine-bottle size vessel of Jinro soju was selling for $7.50. In restaurants, the price is about $15 for the same size bottle.

I sipped two brands, Jinro and Kyungwoul, of the sweet-potato style soju at Joung Kak Restaurant. This restaurant is on 20th Street between Maryland Avenue and Charles Street, where most of the customers and all of the employees spoke Korean.

The Kyungwoul was called "green soju," but I learned that the "green" referred to the color of the bottle, not the soju. The liquor was clear.

I poured a little of each brand, the Jinro and the Kyungwoul, into shot glasses. I smelled. I sipped. My inexperienced soju-sipping taste buds couldn't detect any difference between the two brands. Both were slightly chilled. Both had the aroma and flavor of alcohol, and a slightly biting finish. As I sipped the soju, I ate some delicious steamed dumplings.

Suzie Hong, a native of Seoul who operates Suzie's Soba, a noodle shop and eatery in the Belvedere, told me to be sure to eat something before I sipped soju.

Americans, she noted with disapproval, tended to drink cocktails on empty stomachs. Koreans, she said, like to sip soju while eating side orders of beef, grilled fish, or grilled vegetables. "The TC food protects your stomach from the soju," she said.

She also told me about drinking etiquette.

In Korea, she said, it is common for businessmen to gather in a restaurant for a few drinks with their colleagues at the end of a workday. "You sip soju, then you go home," she said. If a Korean businessman were to go straight home, and skip the soju sipping session, she said, he would probably be regarded "as some kind of wimpy guy."

Dong B. Shin, another native of Seoul who now lives in Baltimore, described soju drinkers as hale, hearty and younger types. Thirty years ago, when he was in Korea and much younger, he drank his fair share of the liquor, said Shin, who is 55 years old. But now, Shin said, he steers clear of the elixir. "It is a tough drink," he said.

As for me, I would say my soju sipping days are on hold. I have sampled enough of the sweet potato-style soju. I am content to wait a year or so until the premium stuff, made from rice and made in Baltimore, shows up in the market. Then perhaps I will make another soju-sipping sojourn.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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