Jinro Hopes to Make Soju America's Next Clear Spirit

The world’s biggest-selling liquor brand wants America to replace vodka with soju, a clear Korean liquor with less than half the alcohol content of the Russian spirit.

The world’s best-selling brand of spirits by far is Korea’s Jinro Soju. It sold over 62 million cases in 2012, nearly three times as much as Smirnoff Vodka, the world’s number two brand. Lotte, a leading name in soju as well as hotels and foods, was in third place.

Soju is a distilled clear liquor traditionally made from rice and wheat, but now as likely to be made from potatoes, sweet potatoes and even tapioca. The alcohol content of soju can range from about 15% to 40%, with the most popular varieties, including Jinro Soju, at about 20%. Unlike vodka which has virtually no taste other than the harsh bite of alcohol, soju is slightly sweet, with no harshness, making it easy to drink straight.

Jinro’s status as the world’s top liquor brand comes from its position as S. Korea’s best-selling soju brand combined with its growing popularity in Japan and China, both of which have substantial Korean populations. The US — the world’s biggest consumer market — accounts for only about 5% of Jinro’s soju sales.

“We want to be at every store,” says Jinro America sales and marketing manager. “Like everybody could just go into a store and see soju there. That’s our main goal.”

To help achieve that goal, last year Jinro Soju signed Psy to be its spokesperson and plastered his image on billboards around Los Angeles. The popularity of Korean pop culture will help it make inroads outside Koreatown supermarkets and clubs into into the mainstream American market, the company hopes. It has also started selling its soju at Dodgers games.

In short, it would like to repeat vodka’s success during the 1960s and 70s in going from an unknown foreign liquor to America’s most popular clear spirit.