Your Summer Won’t Be Complete Without This 3-Ingredient Watermelon Cocktail

The drink can be found on Korean American restaurant menus and is so easy to make at home.

August 18, 2020
By: Irene Yoo

When it’s hot and sweaty, nothing cools me down like watermelon. But add soju to the big green melon, and it’s a party!

Watermelon has always been inextricably linked with summer and Korea for me – my family spent the long summers off from school in Seoul, and my mom and I would often go visit my aunt who lived at the top of a hill in neighborhood Donam-dong. It’s customary to bring a food gift when going to someone’s house, so at the base of the hill my mom would stop at the local fruit stand, thumping various sized watermelons until she would finally pick one to plunk in my arms. We would take turns carrying it up the steep hill, dripping sweat and panting in the heat. And once at my aunt’s door, collapse in the air conditioning to be rewarded with the sweet nectar of juicy, fresh watermelon that she’d cut up for us. Watermelon is widely consumed in Korea – in addition to being a reliable house-visiting gift, it’s often served as a refreshing palate cleanser at the end of restaurant meals.

These days, as an adult of legal drinking age, watermelon has become a different kind of vehicle – specifically for watermelon soju. It’s a popular group drink order amongst Korean Americans, and my first encounter with it was at Manhattan Koreatown institution Pocha 32. Saddle up to one of the steel round drinking tables at this Korean pub and you’ll see imbibers ladling the sweet pink concoction out of giant watermelons all around you.

It's simple enough to make at home. Acquire one big watermelon, lop off the top and scoop out all the flesh. Blend with a bottle or two of soju, a few splashes of lemon-lime soda and tons of ice. Serve in the hollowed-out watermelon and ladle your way to a night of sweet drinkable goodness.

Watermelon soju takes its cue from hwachae, a traditional Korean punch. Sort of a drinkable fruit salad, hwachae utilizes a variety of fruits to make refreshing drinks for Korea’s hot and humid summers. For the watermelon version, balled or cubed watermelon is mixed with other seasonal fruits (like honeydew or cantaloupe), sugared or honied water (simply add sugar or honey to water to make this) or watermelon juice and sometimes edible flowers.

From there, it’s not a big stretch to consider adding soju, Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage. Soju is a clear liquor traditionally distilled from rice but more likely from potato or sweet potatoes these days. It’s similar to vodka but half as strong (clocking in at about 20% ABV), and a close cousin to Chinese baiju or Japanese shochu.

Soju’s natural lack of flavor lends itself to sweeteners – it’s common to blend fruits or yogurt with the liquor. And while flavored sojus in general have been popular in the native Korean market for some time, the popularity of watermelon soju seems to stem largely from the Korean American community. The large-format cocktail was a no-brainer crowd pleaser at long-standing spots like Pocha 32 and Sikgaek in Queens, eventually earning a place on menus at many bars and restaurants both stateside and in Korea.

So while this may be a summer unlike any other, we can still enjoy and endure the heatwaves of summer’s wane with a refreshing and potent watermelon soju right at home.

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