K-drinking: a look behind the soju that's conquered the Philippine market

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

We toured the HITEJINRO factory in Icheon, South Korea to find out how soju is made. Photo courtesy of HITEJINRO

Seoul, South Korea (CNN Philippines Life, Oct. 23) —  In K-drama land, the sight of emerald green bottles and shot glasses on the table are a sign of many things: a lovesick male lead mourning the end of a relationship, or maybe an ensemble of office workers celebrating a promotion. When you see them whip out the soju, one thing’s for sure: they’re in for a long night.

But have you ever wondered why all soju bottles have the same shape and color, regardless of brand?

“It’s for recycling purposes,” says Byung Jun Yu, the HITEJINRO manager for overseas business. Earlier in the day, Yu answered this and more of our long-held soju questions as he toured us around the HITEJINRO factory in Icheon, a sprawling complex that’s around 45 minutes away from Seoul by car.

The tour of the factory began with a look at the recycling process, where bottle labels are removed and the bottles themselves undergo an intensive sanitation process before being filled up with the soju that fuels many a drunken night out. Pointing out that some of the bottles in the crates are not from JINRO, Yu tells us that several soju companies came to an agreement over a decade ago to package their soju in green bottles with the same color and design so that they can easily be recycled.

A display inside HITEJINRO’s guest gallery. Photo courtesy of HITEJINRO

Riding the Hallyu wave

We were at the factory to learn more about Korea’s number one liquor; a spirit that’s dominated the Philippine alcohol market since it found its way to our shores in the 1980s. Over email, Jung-ho Hwang, managing director at the HITEJINRO overseas business headquarters cites data from Euromonitor, which stated that the Philippine soju market in 2022 was “estimated to be 7,545,000 liters in volume, which translates to 21 million bottles.”

“Soju is seamlessly integrated with culture. In the midst of the global Hallyu wave, soju is readily recognizable and accessible,” says Hwang. “I believe that the charm of soju lies not only in its taste but also in the fact that it allows consumers to embrace Korean culture while enjoying it.”

For many of us, drinking soju is one way to channel our favorite K-drama characters and K-pop idols. The drink’s ubiquity in K-entertainment, its fun flavor options, and its accessible price point have made it a drink of choice for many a Filipino inuman.

Hwang says that this was all part of the company’s “soft marketing” strategy; a process which involves getting young female celebrities as their brand ambassadors. The current ambassador is singer-actress IU, who’s been representing the brand for eight years and counting. She’s the latest in a string of actresses and singers tapped by the brand to advertise their Chamisul product since 1999 — a strategy they used to encourage young women to buy what back then was previously marketed as a “man’s drink.”

HITEJINRO’s “soft marketing” strategy involves getting young female celebrities as their brand ambassadors for the Chamisul brand. Photo courtesy of HITEJINRO

In photo (left): An ad featuring JINRO Chamisul brand ambassador IU. (right): Chamisul posters at a restaurant in Icheon. Photos courtesy of HITEJINRO and by GABY GLORIA

What’s soju made of?

At the factory museum, we got a peek of JINRO’s close to 100 year legacy, which started in what is now North Korea. They opened in 1924 with a flagship soju that had 35% ABV (alcohol by volume). By comparison, the average ABV of whisky is between 36 to 50%, while tequila is usually at about 40%. Now, JINRO’s flagship Chamisul bottles contain 16.5% ABV.

This hasn’t stopped it from being enjoyed worldwide. “It’s the #1 best-selling spirit in the world!” says Yu proudly at the start of the tour, citing Drinks International’s Millionaires’ Club list. It even beat out the Philippines’ own Ginebra, as well as other hard liquors such as Imperial Blue whiskey and Strong Zero. JINRO accounts for roughly half of the soju market in the Philippines, based on their export quantities.

Yu showed us the distillation process that sets JINRO soju apart from other imitation brands. As a spirit, their Chamisul soju is known for its neutral, slightly sweet and clean-tasting flavor despite its high alcohol content. To achieve that flavor, it’s made with three key ingredients: rice, barley, and tapioca, with a few natural additives that undergo a patented four-time distillation method involving bamboo charcoal.

This process removes impurities that can cause hangovers — one of the many reasons why JINRO Chamisul is the soju of choice for many Koreans. If not for the taste, it can be hard to differentiate sojus based on shelf appearance alone. When in doubt, Yu says, “look for the toad.”

JINRO toads don’t have an official name. They go by “Dukkeobi,” the Korean word for toad. In photo (left): The toads at the HITEJINRO factory in Icheon. (Right): The toads on an ahjussi's apron at Gwangjang Market in Seoul. Photo by GABY GLORIA

HITEJINRO re-introduced the toad in 2019, along with their “JINRO Is Back” campaign, which also introduced a retro blue bottle design that quickly became a hit in Korea. I ask if this mascot has a name, like the Kakao and Line characters so prevalent around the nation’s capital. But Yu tells me that the toad doesn’t have a name. It’s simply called “dukkeobi,” which translates to “toad” in Korean.

We ended the tour right before lunch, a little tipsy from all the soju we tried at the end of it. As if to stamp in the fact that JINRO is already a hallmark to Korean culture as San Miguel is to Philippine culture, markers of the brand greeted us until we reached Seoul. At the restaurant we went to for lunch, a poster of IU smiled down upon us as we enjoyed our dak galbi, while sky blue, light green, and pink versions of Dukkeobi were plastered on restaurant windows, stamped on soju bottles and water pitchers, and printed on the aprons of ahjussis and ahjummas at the market.