Vodka's stand-in

A club owner brings soju to the thirsty masses

Here's David Reiss's favorite recipe for a cosmopolitan: 3/4 ounce cranberry juice, 3/4 ounce lime juice, 3/4 ounce nonalcoholic orange liqueur, and 3 ounces soju.

Is that last ingredient a mystery? It won't be for long, if Reiss has his way. The club owner has become L.A.'s most vocal proponent of soju, a Korean variation on vodka whose popularity is spilling out from Korea town to spots like Reiss's Sugar, in Santa Monica.

Originally produced from rice but now usually made from sweet potatoes, soju is 24 percent alcohol, compared with 40 percent for virtually all vodkas. And thanks to an obscure provision of a 1998 California liquor law, it's a libation that doesn't require a spirits permit to pour.

Reiss, who started in the club business nearly 25 years ago as a DJ, discovered soju's appeal when he was launching Sugar ― and found himself unable to get a full spirits license. "I assumed we'd just have beer, wine, champagne, and sake," he says. "But we got our sake from Mutual Trading Company, and a guy at the warehouse asked why I didn't also buy soju."

Reiss describes soju as "pretty neutral in flavor. It may be a little harsh, not as refined as a premium vodka," he says. Soju in Red Bull is popular, as are Reiss's soju-based cocktails, all of which start with Green soju, produced by Doosan Liquor in South Korea. And if you're looking for something soju-inspired to make at home, Reiss recommends his Tai Me Up: 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup, 1/2 ounce lime juice, 1/2 ounce grenadine, a splash of pineapple juice ― and, of course, 3 ounces soju.― Chris Rubin

Seeking soju

Besides Sugar (10 p.m.-2 a.m. Thu-Sat; 814 Broadway, Santa Monica; www.clubsugar.com or 310/899-1989), soju is available at many Asian markets.