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Why Westerners are raising a glass of Soju

What exactly is Soju? 

The national drink of South Korea, soju is the world’s best-selling liquor by volume. This clear, colourless distilled spirit is traditionally made from a blend of rice and grains. However, between the 1960s and 1990s, rice was in short supply and was banned from soju production. So sojus were made with other starches instead, like potatoes, sweet potatoes and wheat. Although the ban is no longer in place, many soju producers still look beyond rice for their starches.

A neutral-tasting spirit, coined ‘Korean vodka’ – yet with around half the percentage of alcohol, it doesn’t have the harsh alcohol burn. Its alcohol by volume (ABV) content varies from 16% to 53%.

Until recently though, soju has been largely overlooked by the Western world; in the United States it was perceived to be a distilled spirit that doesn’t follow the rules of spirit distillery and is almost watered down. Now though, soju is starting to gain traction in the United States with its growth evident in our trend data.

To demonstrate, soju is ranked 61 out of 377* Spirits and Liqueurs products by its predicted future growth trajectory. There have been 24,000 conversations about it over the past two years, growing at 18% YoY growth. To put that into context that’s more than Spiced Rum, Japanese Whiskey or Sake over the same period.

Why is soju suddenly making waves in Western culture? 

We need to look beyond where the product is ranking within our datasets, to see what’s driving the shift in soju’s popularity and making it a growing trend.

  1. Dangerously drinkable

Many consumers call out how much they love the clean, sweet taste of soju, which can often lead them to drinking it in excess. Similarly, its neutral taste makes it an excellent base spirit for cocktails and mixed drinks, meaning consumers often fail to taste its presence within the drink.

The owner of New York’s recently opened Korean restaurant Oiji perceives it as a ‘dangerous alcohol yet in a fun way’. With around 20 percent ABV on average, it sits somewhere between a hard liquor, like whiskey, and wine – suggesting that it’s easy to drink but the after effects are very real.

  1. A social experience

Like wine, soju is meant to be consumed with food, and vice versa. The Koreans have a word that we don’t have, Anja, which means food that is specifically made to be consumed with alcohol.

Yet more and more soju drinkers are shaking off tradition and drinking soju as an ingredient in mixed drinks. And the Soju Bomb or poktanju (which means ‘bomb drink’) takes this experience further. A shot of soju is balanced on two chopsticks above a pint of beer. Drinkers then slam their hands either side of the pint glass until the shot falls in, drinking the mixture that it creates.

  1. Embracing Korean culture

The rise in Soju’s popularity goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Korean BBQ as a dinner choice. The experience involves bringing the grill to the table so guests can watch the meat-cooking process.

This plays into many of the trends that consumers globally are increasingly looking for, including experiencing new and authentic cultures, and being able to understand the process of how what they consume is being made. Part of the allure of the food is also the bold flavours used in the sauces.

For consumers who truly want to engage in a fully authentic Korean BBQ experience, soju is a must, much like drinking sake with Japanese cuisine. This particularly appeals to restaurants in the US that want to serve soju, because they don’t have to apply or pay for expensive liquor licenses.

As its ABV typically falls between 16% and 53%, many sojus can technically be considered a rice wine – bypassing liquor licensing laws. Restaurants can then build their low-alcohol cocktail lists by using soju as a vodka replacement, for example in a Bloody Mary.

The wave of Korean culture

Soju’s increasing popularity as a drink in its own right and flexibility in terms of a base ingredient, offers plenty of scope for innovation. It’s a trend that sits within the wave of Korean culture or Hallyu that’s sweeping across the West. But what else is growing as part of this macro trend?

Our Hallyu cross-category report brings you detailed insights and trend predictions.

It dives into the key manifestations behind Hallyu and surfaces emerging and growing themes, ingredients and products within the Alcohol Beverages, Skincare and Snacking categories.

*The data in this blog is from Black Swan’s US Spirits & Liqueurs dataset, updated to 31st May 2019.