The Financial News took a look back recently at the evolution of soju since 1920.
The amount of alcohol in soju, the citizens’ alcohol, fell by nearly half over the past 90-plus years.
The soju made for domestic sale was 35% alcohol in 1920, but on the 19th Jinro renewed its J brand with 18.5% alcohol, initiating the 18% era.
In 1920, during the Japanese colonial period, there were over 3,200 soju breweries throughout the nation, and most soju was distilled and had a 35% alcohol content. After 1965 diluted soju with a 30% alcohol content appeared, and the decline in alcohol content began.
Soju was not then the citizens’ alcohol, as it is today. In 1965, when Jinro first introduced diluted soju, makgeolli dominated the domestic alcohol market.
The domination of that market by soju began in 1973, when Jinro introduced a soju with a 25% alcohol content.
As soju, the “strong drink” that appeared on ordinary people’s tables amidst rapid economic growth and stress, became fixed in people’s minds as being always 25% alcohol, and it became the citizens’ alcohol. 25 years passed under the “soju=25%” mindset.
The business world’s unwritten law that “soju=25%” came crashing down in October of ’98. Jinro released Chamisul with 23% alcohol. That naturally played a role in the race towards lower alcohol content, currently at 18%.
In 2002 22% Chamisul was released, followed in 2006 by 20.1% Chamiseul.
In 2006 Jinro released Chamisul Fresh with an alcohol content of 19.8%, opening the era of alcohol content in the 10s.
Then in 2007 Chamisul Fresh (19.5%) and Lotte’s soft Chumchurum (19.5) each knocked off another 0.3%.
Provincial soju companies have also followed this lower-alcohol trend, with Cham Special (19.5%), Siwon (19.8%), Hite (19.9%), Ipseju (19.5%), and Hallasan (19.8%) all joining in.
Into this soju market Jinro released J, knocking off another 1% to reach 18.5% alcohol, firing another shot in the soft soju war.
These new sojus are seeing increased demand among women, and as soju companies reduce the amount of costly alcohol they save hundreds of millions of won in production costs, making it likely that low-alcohol soju will continue.
It appears companies will go no lower than 17%.
One business representative said, “if you go under 17% you blur the boundary with low-alcohol drinks. Because you gain the ability to have TV ads at less than 17%, you could be promoting drinking cultures and exposing teenagers to it, so the authorities may stop you.”
In the soft soju era all eyes are on the continuing increase in consumption of soju.
In 2002, when soju was at 22.0%, consumption was 840,000 kiloliters, but in 2006, when levels fell to 20%, 950,000 kiloliters were consumed, and in 2007 that increased to 960,000 as levels fell to 19%, an apparent trend.
Accordingly, as alcohol levels in soju continue to fall it is shedding its image as a stiff drink, and women can enjoy it worry-free as it changes into a soft alcohol.
Last November the “Asian consumer intelligence” site Five by Fifty looked at the launch of J and put together a neat graphic of the evolution of the Chamisul brand. The Grand Narrative is, of course, the go-to place for soju ad blogging.