A wave of new, summery drinks is taking over Korea. Marketed almost exclusively toward women, the fruit-flavored sojus and alcopops are low in alcohol, high in sugar and raise some interesting questions about how women are perceived and marketed to in a country that still has some of the worst gender-equality outcomes in the world.
Soju is similar to vodka, but with about half the alcohol content of most spirits. It is extremely popular in hard-drinking South Korea — especially among men. Keen to tap into the female market, soju makers have for years been lowering the alcohol content and experimenting with different, sweeter varieties to attract women.
Capturing the market
But it hasn’t really worked until last year, when soju maker Chum-churum started a revolution with Soonhari, a citron-flavored soju. Now, the country’s major soju producers, Chum-churum and Jinro, are falling over themselves putting out new versions of fruit-flavored drinks to capture the market. Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available. Most of them have between 11 and 14 percent alcohol, as opposed to the 17 to 21 percent in regular soju.
“I like the fruity soju,” says Kim Hyeon-seo, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Ilsan, a city just north of Seoul. “It has more flavor than pure soju, and the alcohol level is lower than regular soju.” She says they sell a lot of flavored sojus, mostly to young women.
A sweeter flavor
Lee Young-jin, the manager of Hanshin Pocha bar in Ilsan, says they sell plenty of the fruit sojus. “Before flavored soju, people just drank the regular soju,” Lee says. “We’d sell six cases of it a day. But with the new soju, we sell eight or nine cases.”
He says a table with three women will often put away eight or nine bottles of flavored soju, as opposed to only two or three of the regular kind.
Along with these fruity sojus are new alcoholic sodas like Brother Soda and Iseul Tok Tok. Both are 3 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to a white wine base, but you would never know from tasting them. Brother Soda tastes exactly like cream soda. Iseul Tok Tok tastes like “2%,” a popular peach-flavored soda in Korea. You can’t taste a hint of alcohol in either.
Lim Jongwoo, a waiter at Yaki Hwaro Galbe, says the sodas are almost entirely consumed by women. Lim says he doesn’t drink them, because “the alcohol level is very low.”
At a nearby table, Kang Yujin, 27, says, “I like the taste, its sweet flavor. Sometimes I drink regular soju, but mostly the flavored one.” She says that she’ll usually drink two bottles in one night.
Targeting the trendsetters
Daniel Gray, who runs food tours of Korea and the food blog “Seoul Eats,” says the companies are marketing toward women because they “have most of the buying power in Korean society, and tend to make the trends and influence the market on what to buy.”
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Gray notes this isn’t the first time flavored sojus have been introduced — previous attempts over the last 10 years, including cucumber and green tea-flavored sojus, died quickly. He predicts that once the trend recedes, Korea will be left with only two fruit-flavored sojus, probably grapefruit and citron.
James Turnbull, an expat Briton who has written extensively about gender in Korea, thinks the advertising campaigns for the new sojus are overly “cutesy” and reinforce a trend in Korea called “aegyo,” where women try to be attractive to men by acting like young children. This contrasts with mainstream soju ads, which in the past decade, Turnbull says, have been emphasizing an extreme sexuality.
Park Solmin is a 23-year-old professional woman and is the exact target the soju makers have in mind. But she has a problem with how the ads reinforce a traditionally Korean view of gender. “They’re going to try to appear a very pure and weak image of a woman,” she says. “They’re trying to show it’s OK for those women who are trying to be very girlish, very typically weak.”
Park admits, though, that the flavored drinks do taste much better than traditional ones.
As a middle-aged man, Turnbull admits he’s hardly the target for these new drinks. But he also admits he likes them, and wonders why they only market to women. “I think a lot of guys like them, because (regular) soju tastes like crap,” he says.
Main photo: Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner