Soju Globalization: From Green Bottle to Premium Label

Business

That iconic green bottle. Responsible for so many drunk nights in South Korea, so many hangovers. Now, the drink is gaining a steady following abroad, even giving rise to a new premium market.

“The Russians have vodka, the French have wine. And Koreans have soju,” said Jeff Park, an office worker at LG and unashamed soju-drinker.

Soju: The odorless, transparent drink — often made from mixing water and near-pure alcohol distilled from fermented potato, barley, tapioca and other ingredients — is consumed by millions throughout South Korea. It is the country’s de-facto ‘national drink.’ Almost no Korean restaurant operates without it in the fridge. And all too often, it serves a single purpose: getting drunk.

So pervasive is the 360ml green bottle that it now ranks as the biggest-selling liquor in South Korea and one of the most consumed drinks worldwide.

A messy affair: the common sight at a party in South Korea. The star guest: soju. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

The numbers are staggering: HiteJinro, the beverage giant behind the Chamisul soju brand (with a domestic market share of over 50 percent), clocked up annual sales of more than 1 trillion won ($935 million) in 2016, and sold a total of 26.8 billion bottles in South Korea between 1998 and 2016. According to a 2015 Gallup Korea survey, the most drunk alcoholic beverage among respondents was soju, at 62 percent, followed by beer, at just 25 percent.

One of the factors contributing to soju’s stunning success is its price, which has always been very affordable: One bottle costs as little as 400 won (38 cents) to produce, and is sold for approximately 1,200 won ($1.10) in supermarkets, and 4,000 won ($3.70) in restaurants.

“It tastes great with certain foods like barbecue and it’s super cheap,” said Kevin Em, a supervisor at the Seoul branch of PR consultancy firm Hill & Knowlton.

But cost alone may not be enough to explain soju’s supremacy.

“It’s not just the price, it’s about the identity,” said Jeff Park at LG. “It allows people to open up and form more close relationships.

“People get stressed, but going to see a psychiatrist is taboo. So they let it out by drinking and getting sloppy, to relieve stress and get less of a hangover the next day. It feels clean and honest, and does what it’s meant to do: get people drunk.”

In the name of journalism research: Soju even comes in 200ml cartons, complete with a straw. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

Soju — literally “distilled alcohol” — is not a modern invention. But mass production of soju using fermented rice reportedly started in Korea when Jinro (now HiteJinro) released its first bottle with an alcohol content of 35 percent ABV (alcoholic beverage volume) in 1924.

In 1965, during South Korea’s rapid industrialization, the Grain Management Act went into effect, banning the use of rice to make alcohol because of a national food shortage. This gave rise to the diluted soju that we are so familiar with today — made by taking near-pure alcohol distilled from fermented starch and fruit and diluting it with water to achieve an acceptable alcohol level for drinking. (The ban on using rice to produce alcohol was lifted in 1991, but diluted soju still remains the most popular kind today.)

Over time, soju’s alcohol content gradually decreased from the high of 35 percent ABV; it now hovers between 17 and 20 percent. There are also fruit-flavored variants, designed to appeal to a wider audience. Multiple companies besides HiteJinro manufacture their own versions, too.

Soju is increasingly reaching beyond the Korean border (North Korea has its own version). According to British magazine Drinks International, Chamisul is now the world’s most consumed brand of liquor, and not just because Koreans themselves drink so much of it.

“The reason for the surge in soju exports to Southeast Asia is the growing interest in hallyu [the Korean Wave] and a growing soju consumer base comprising local residents and Korean tourists,” said a HiteJinro PR team member, who declined to be named.

The Soju Wave has partly to thank the larger Korean Wave and the export of various dramas and musical troupes. Psy, the famed Gangnam Style singer, even collaborated with Snoop Dogg in 2014, portraying South Korea’s unique drinking culture — which involves a lot of soju — in a song and music video titled “Hangover.”

HiteJinro now exports to over 80 countries and has overseas subsidiaries in Japan, the U.S., China, Russia and Vietnam, with Japan being its biggest overseas market. The company is currently conducting aggressive marketing promotions in countries like the Philippines and Cambodia.

 

Going Beyond Cheap and Potent

But don’t limit your understanding of soju to the cheap green bottles. More brands are producing traditional-style versions of the drink from rice and other grains, and selling them at a premium. (If you just want to see how they might taste, consider Daejangbu, manufactured by Lotte Liquor for soju drinkers who want a little more flavor and quality without spending big bucks. It’s priced at between 2,000 and 2,500 won — about $2 — for 360ml.)

Hwayo may be the best known of them all: The drink, distilled from an alcoholic brew as the traditional method dictates, is made from Korean rice and underground spring water, according to its manufacturer, the Kwangjuyo Group (which also operates Gaon, one of the two Michelin three-star restaurants in South Korea).

Its 500ml bottle, at 25 percent ABV, sells for 21,000 won ($20) in South Korea, and a lot more ($39) abroad.

Distilleries outside South Korea are also jumping on the premium soju bandwagon. A handful of new brands has popped up, including Yobo Soju.

“The green soju bottle was never meant to be our competition,” said Carolyn Kim, a Korean-American public interest attorney who founded Yobo Soju. Her craft brand launched in 2015 and uses grapes grown in New York state.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the green bottles and grew up with them, but sometimes, they’re out of place,” Kim said. She wanted to create a drink that complemented the evolving Korean food scene in the U.S., she added, and was never interested in making traditional rice-based soju. “Grapes have a natural elegance when it comes to flavor and aromatics.”

A bottle of Yobo Soju, which sits at the premium end of the modern-day soju spectrum. (Photo courtesy of Yobo Soju)

Kim’s product sells at a retail price of $21.99 for 375ml and $34.99 for 750ml in the U.S., firmly occupying the higher end of the modern soju price spectrum.

Kim is part of a group of entrepreneurs trying to rediscover and innovate ways of producing conventional alcohols, combining high-quality ingredients and traditional techniques.

“We wanted to compete with the fine spirits of the world like craft gin, robust mezcal and elegant schnapps,” Kim said. She sees no validity in the argument that soju must come with a low price tag. “Korean culture is not cheap.”

 

For more on South Korea’s drinking culture, see:

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Cover image: Soju shots. (Source: Pixabay)

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.