[Apr] Soju’s versatility is fueling its growing appeal in Korea and abroad

Date Apr 15, 2024

Left: Bottles of Soju. Right: Soju Cocktails. (Courtesy of Shutterstock)

Left: Bottles of Soju. Right: Soju Cocktails. (Courtesy of Shutterstock)

Soju’s prominence on the world stage is growing as the traditional Korean spirit is sought after by the world's top bars and pubs. An international media tally last year found that up to seven of the world’s top 50 bars in the United States and Hong Kong offered cocktails that featured soju among the ingredients.  

The secret to soju’s growing prominence internationally has much to do with the increasing popularity of Korean food overseas, from kimchi to bulgogi. In fact, interest in soju has accelerated abroad not just in tandem with Korean cuisine’s growing appeal but with the increasing global popularity of K-pop and K-dramas, which is raising interest in all things Korean.

The alcoholic beverage, which dates to the 13th century, was originally made from rice and other grains, but the range of fermentation starters and other ingredients has expanded over the years, creating a wide variety of soju. Producers continue to innovate by introducing new flavors, packaging options and marketing strategies to attract consumers. Flavored soju has become increasingly popular, with a wide range of fruit-infused and other flavored varieties available. These twists on the traditional spirit have expanded its appeal internationally, particularly among new demographics such as women. 

Soju is typically paired with samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) or other types of Korean barbecue and drunk socially in restaurants, bars or at other gatherings with friends and family in homes or outdoors. The drink is a staple of Korean culture and is often used in drinking games and rituals. Soju has long been welcomed on tables due to its mild flavor and affordability, making it accessible to a wide demographic. The spirit can also be drunk straight in shots or mixed with other beverages for a cocktail, which has added to its broad appeal. 

Soju’s versatility continues to evolve today. The traditional way to distill soju has gained new prominence among younger drinkers in Korea who are quick to follow trends. Dovetailing with younger people’s desire to be seen as hip, these modern incarnations that rely on traditional distilling are gaining market share against the old still-dominant brands that rely on faster, more modern processing. Still, every kind of soju is considered a solid part of Korean culture and helps sustain its appeal.

To meet the increasing demand among younger generations, bars specializing in traditional alcohol are popping up wherever young Koreans congregate. Even regular brick-and-mortar stores are getting into the action. For example, major supermarket chains are setting up separate stands to highlight new spirits inspired by traditional liquors. 

Modern bottles for traditionally distilled Korean liquor (Courtesy of Shutterstock)

Modern bottles for traditionally distilled Korean liquor (Courtesy of Shutterstock)

Young people’s demand for traditional liquor is also expanding beyond offline stores to the online market. Korea’s highly developed online shopping market has boosted sales of traditional alcohol, and there are several online platforms and mobile apps dedicated to liquor delivery in the country. These platforms allow customers to browse a wide range of alcoholic beverages, place orders and schedule delivery straight to their doorsteps, often on the same day. It goes without saying that customers must present identification to confirm they are within the legal drinking age upon delivery. 

One traditional liquor delivery service and online shopping mall operates a subscription service that introduces, selects and delivers soju and over 2,000 other types of traditional liquor. The service’s customer base is overwhelmingly young, with those in their 20s and 30s accounting for 80 percent of the subscribers. Platforms such as these compete for the attention of young consumers by offering promotions, discounts and special offers, including free delivery on orders over a certain amount. 

All of this suggests that liquor companies and distributors will continue to adapt to changing attitudes about alcohol and new ways to sell their products. As has long been the case, soju will continue to evolve to meet the changing demands of consumers in Korea and abroad. 

Source Indication(Type 1)

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's "Korea Here & Now" work can be used under the condition of "Public Nuri Type 1 (Source Indication)."