Soju Makers Aim to Go Premium


Soju is one of the most widely consumed liquors in not only South Korea but also the world. However, South Korea’s soju market only grew 1.1 percent in volume from 2008-2013, according to market research company Eurocenter.

Korean soju makers aren’t standing pat. The Wall Street Journal reports that companies, including Hite-Jinro, are looking to go beyond the instantly recognizable green bottle for something a bit more fancy. Somewhat akin to the budding brewing culture in South Korea, companies are now experimenting with soju blends to establish a premium market domestically and overseas.

Hite-Jinro has been importing oak whisky barrels from Scotland and Tennessee since 2006, aging different soju blends in them at the company’s plant in Icheon. Early returns are promising: Sales of premium-branded soju have grown, including Hite-Jinro’s Ilpoom soju and most notably Kwangjuyo’s Hwayo soju, whose sales have increased 30 percent each year since 2010.

Your regular green bottle soju will run you about $3-5 in South Korean restaurants and in most Korean markets in the U.S., although that can shoot up to nearly $20 in some bars and restaurants in Los Angeles. Premium oak-aged soju, however, can go up to 168,000 won ($158) per bottle.

What’s the difference between the two, other than the oak barrels? Hite-Jinro’s Chamisul mass-market soju is made from fermented rice, barley and tapioca. The mixture is filtered through bamboo charcoal, then diluted with water to bring it down to about 17.5-20.1 percent alcohol by volume. The Icheon factory reportedly produces 5 million bottles each day.

Premium soju, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. Hite-Jinro’s Ilpoom soju is made from a 100 percent rice solution, which is aged for ten years in oak. It has a “bouquet of green melon, rosemary, thyme and pine nettle” and is apparently softer with a cleaner taste than Chamisul. This kind of high-end soju is only available in South Korea.

Jinro Otsu is similar to Ilpoom but has a more milky texture and is available only in Japan. It apparently draws comparisons to sake, with banana flavors.

Myeongpoom soju is produced for the Chinese market and is described to be more potent and powerful. A Korean sommelier said it reminded him of his childhood. The soju smelled like burnt candy, he said, but tasted synthetic.

Another way to single out premium soju is to take a closer look at the packaging. Rather than the green bottle, premium soju bottles look more like vodka or higher-end sake bottles. Check your local Korean market’s liquor aisle if you’re interested!

Image via Hite-Jinro