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Sun September 22, 2013
The Salt

Move Over Vodka; Korean Soju's Taking A Shot At America

Originally published on Wed September 25, 2013 1:35 pm

Every year, the trade magazine Drinks International puts out a list of the top-selling alcohols in the world, and in the category of spirits, there is one brand that more than doubles the sales of its closest competitor every year. Smirnoff, Jack Daniel's and Bacardi don't even come close.

That top-seller is South Korea's Jinro soju, a clear spirit traditionally made of rice. It's about 20-percent alcohol and has a light, slightly sweet taste. The reason you've probably never heard of it is because Jinro does less than 5 percent of its sales in the U.S. It makes up for that by dominating the market in South Korea, and doing brisk business in Japan and China.

Now, Jinro's American operation wants to expand, and it's getting some help from a major spokesperson — Korean pop star PSY, whose "Gangnam Style" music video is now closing in on 2 billion views.

"The Korean culture is now becoming the hip culture," says Patty Kang, who runs advertising strategy for Jinro America. Kang, who is herself Korean-American, she says she recently saw this play out at a K-Pop concert in L.A.

"There were about 20,000 screaming teenagers, and I would say about 80 percent of the screaming teenagers were non-Korean," she says. "It shocked me!"

And, of course, Kang says, Korean-Americans are already sold on Soju.

"I mean, we're not alcoholics, so we don't have it at every single meal, but if it's any type of gathering — friends, family, whatnot — Soju is always there," she says. "It just goes with the food."

Soju, Soju Everywhere

In an effort to reach people who have no connection to Korean culture, Jinro has partnered with the Los Angeles Dodgers and started selling soju at games. They've also got PSY up on billboards around L.A.

"We want to be at every store. Like everybody could just go into a store and see soju there," says Tae Kim, sales and marketing manager for Jinro America. "That's our main goal."

But Hamish Smith — deputy editor of Drinks International and the author of this year's report — calls that goal unrealistic. He says there is a precedent for a new spirit entering the American market: In the 1950s, vodka was a foreign alcohol trying to make it big in the U.S. and now it's the top-selling spirit here.

"You might argue that if vodka could do it — a Russian-Polish spirit, white spirit — then why not?" Smith says. "But I kind of feel like that place has been filled."

Soju has one key advantage over vodka, though, and that's alcohol content. Because it's around 20 percent, restaurants in some places don't need a full liquor license to sell soju, just a beer and wine license, which is easier and cheaper to get.

Lower-Proof Cocktail Material

Bank of Venice, a bar in California's Venice Beach, sells soju versions of mojitos, margaritas and other cocktails. Bartender Megan Cross explains, "if you take vodka, its characteristics are colorless, flavorless, odorless. That's premium. So soju, in some respects, is the same, but just lower proof. So it lends itself to be manipulated."

And even though soju has less alcohol content, the bartender can always just double the volume. But it isn't always an easy sell on tourist-heavy Venice Beach.

"It's hit and miss," Cross says. "Because of our location, you are getting the people that just want to get wasted, that just want a shot of Jameson. And it's hard to say, 'I'm not full liquor [licensed], but I have soju.' And it's like, 'What language are you speaking?'"

Still, they must be doing something right. Thomas Elliott, who owns Bank of Venice as well as another bar that mixes soju cocktails, says the decision to serve soju has nothing to do with Korean culture and everything to do with his bottom line.

"It's absolutely a business decision," he says. "It's either have an alternative for your customers who want a different kind of a beverage, or not be able to serve them."

Despite lingering skepticism, there's every indication that Jinro will outsell all its competitors again next year, with or without the U.S.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here's a story with a twist: the world's best-selling brand of alcoholic spirit is something most Americans have never heard of, let alone tasted. So if you're thinking whiskey, tequila, vodka, nope. It's not Smirnoff or Jack Daniel's. It's not Bacardi rum. None of those.

The trade magazine Drinks International's annual list of top-selling alcohols in the world is led this year by another dominant brand. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has the answer and the story of how the best-selling brand in the world is trying to connect in America.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Those other brands, they don't even come close. Every year, this drink more than doubles the sales of the next closest competitor. And it manages that feat with the help of one major spokesperson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

DREISBACH: That's right, Psy from Korea is the spokesperson, and the top-selling brand in the world is Korea's Jinro soju. It's a clear spirit traditionally made of rice, about 20 percent alcohol with a light, slightly sweet taste. And the reason you've probably never heard of it is because Jinro does less than five percent of its sales in the U.S. It makes up for that by dominating the market in Korea and doing brisk business in Japan and China. Now, Jinro's American operation wants to expand with the help of Psy.

TAE KIM: When Psy blew up, I saw that as growth as, like, a culture. This fat Korean guy comes out singing in Korean, and everybody loves him.

DREISBACH: That's Tae Kim. He's the sales and marketing manager for Jinro America. And remember that the "Gangnam Style" YouTube video is now closing in on two billion views. That's with a B. Patty Kang runs the advertising strategy for Jinro America.

PATTY KANG: The Korean culture is now becoming the hip culture.

DREISBACH: Kang is also Korean-American. And she says she saw this play out at a recent K-Pop concert in L.A. By the way, that stands for Korean Pop.

KANG: There were about 20,000 screaming teenagers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN#1: (Foreign language spoken)

KANG: And I would say about 80 percent of the screaming teenagers were non-Korean.

DREISBACH: Really?

KANG: It shocked me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: G-Dragon, baby. (Foreign language spoken)

DREISBACH: Kang says that Korean-Americans are already sold on soju.

KANG: We are not all alcoholics. We don't have it at every single meal. But if it's any type of gathering - friends, family, whatnot - soju is always there, and it just goes with the food.

DREISBACH: Now, Jinro is trying to reach people who have no connection to Korean culture. They've started a partnership with the Los Angeles Dodgers and sold soju at games. They've got Psy up on billboards around L.A. Here's Tae Kim from Jinro.

KIM: We want to be at every store. Like, everybody could just walk into a store and see soju there. That's our main goal

DREISBACH: How realistic do you think that is?

HAMISH SMITH: Unrealistic, I'd say.

DREISBACH: That's Hamish Smith on the phone. He's a deputy editor for Drinks International magazine. He's the guy that wrote this year's report on the top-selling spirits. Smith says there is a precedent for a new spirit entering the American market. In the 1950s, there was another foreign alcohol trying to make it big in the States: vodka. And vodka is now the top-selling spirit in America.

SMITH: You might argue that if vodka could do it - a Russian-Polish spirit - then why not? But I kind of feel like that place has been filled.

DREISBACH: Soju has one key advantage over vodka, alcohol content. Because it's around 20 percent, restaurants and bars in some places don't need a full liquor license to sell soju , just a beer and wine license, which is easier and cheaper to get.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Add some ice.

DREISBACH: It's a weekday afternoon at a bar called the Bank of Venice. They're right off the boardwalk in California's Venus Beach. And they're crafting the soju versions of mojitos and margaritas and other cocktails. Megan Cross is a bartender.

MEGAN CROSS: If you take vodka, its characteristics are colorless, flavorless, odorless. That's premium. So soju, in some respects, is the same, but just lower proof. So it lends itself to be manipulated.

DREISBACH: And even though Soju has less alcohol content, the bartender can just double the volume. But it's not always an easy sell in tourist-heavy Venice Beach.

CROSS: Because of our location, you are getting the people that just want to get wasted, you know, that just want a shot of Jamieson. And it's hard to say I'm not full liquor, but I have soju. And it's like, what language are you speaking?

DREISBACH: But they must be doing something right. Thomas Elliott owns the Bank of Venice as well as another bar that mixes soju cocktails. He says the decision to serve soju has nothing to do with the Korean culture and everything to do with his bottom line.

THOMAS ELLIOTT: It's absolutely a business decision. It's either, you know, have an alternative for your customers who want a different kind of a beverage or not be able to serve them.

DREISBACH: Masao Miyashiro is sitting at the bar. He seems a little skeptical. But he listened closely to the bartender's pitch. So would you be willing to try one of these cocktails?

MASAO MIYASHIRO: You know, now that I've been listening to this whole thing, I think I might try the mint.

DREISBACH: He actually ends up sticking with a beer - a Longboard Lager. So there's skepticism for soju to overcome here. Still, there's every indication that Jinro will outsell all its competitors again next year, with or without the U.S. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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