The biggest spirits brand in the world barely sells a drop in the U.S. -- and most Westerners have probably never heard of what's in the bottle -- a clear-colored booze called "soju" that fervent supporters swear won't give you a hangover.
But that 's not stopping South Korea-based Jinro Limited from trying to grow its presence in the states, reaching beyond its traditional base of Korean-Americans. Jinro dominates in South Korea, keeping it atop the latest ranking of global spirits brands by global volume sold, according to Euromonitor International and Drinks International. In the U.S., the category is so small that Nielsen does not even track it.
Jinro began making moves in the U.S. back in 1986 when it opened an office in Seattle and then later moved to Los Angeles. But the brand has only lately begun a big marketing push here, hiring an ad agency, sponsoring events, and getting product placements in music videos. Jinro is "slowly stepping into the mainstream," said Patty Kang, an account director at Adwell Communications, a small L.A. shop that is the brand's ad agency. But "we know it's going to be a long battle."
Traditionally made from rice, soju is stronger than beer and wine, but has less alcohol than vodka. Soju has long had a foothold in South Korea, partly due to its low price. Jinro soju -- which launched in 1924 and has 24% alcohol by volume -- is made from rice, barley, sweet potato and tapioca, and filtered with a bamboo charcoal made from bamboo native to South Korea.
While Jinro might find the going rough trying to breakthrough in a U.S. alcohol industry dominated by more well-established big-spending brands, it has at least one natural advantage: In New York and California, the liquor code allows retailers to sell soju with only a beer and wine license -- not a liquor license -- thanks in part to lobbying by Korean restaurant owners. While the laws have been in place for a while, Jinro now plans to seize on them, aggressively targeting Korean restaurants frequented by non-Koreans.
The pitch is that soju is a great replacement for other booze in mojitos, cosmopolitans and other cocktails, said Kevin Kang, the brand's U.S. marketing manager. "Soju is lighter," he said. And "it's versatile," he added, swearing up and down that when he drinks it, there's "no hangover at all."
At the same time, Jinro is sponsoring events. In May, along with sibling brand Hite beer, it was the exclusive beverage sponsor for an after-party for an advanced screening of "Hangover, Part II," which was attended by Asian-American celebrities with crossover appeal such as Sandra Oh and Tila Tequila.
Jinro also got product placements in a couple of music videos by hip-hop/pop group Far East Movement, including "If I Was You," which stars Snoop Dog. And in June, Jinro sponsored a launch party for the public television series "Kimchi Chronicles," featuring chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten as he samples Korean culture and food, and of course, soju.