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An old toad’s tale

How a local soju brand JINRO became the world’s No. 1 spirit

World's Most Sold Spirit in 2020

South Korea’s most beloved national drink soju has been around for over a century, ever-present as the country went through drastic social, cultural and economic transformations. And over the past few decades, the country’s signature spirit has taken a step further to become the world’s leading spirit with JINRO soju holding fast to the title as the world’s No.1 spirit on the Millionaires’ Club list for 20 years in a row.

The Millionaires’ Club is an annual list published by the renowned global drinks journal, Drinks International, which features international spirits brands that sell over 1 million 9-liter cases on a yearly basis.

In 2020, HITEJINRO sold around 95.3 million soju cases, almost threefold the amount sold by the world’s No. 2 distilled spirit brand, Philippines’ Ginebra, which sold around 31.2 million cases last year.

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This is a stunning performance considering that the global distilled spirits market has been sluggish due to the global pandemic which led alcohol consumption to drop by 9% in 2020 compared to the previous year. Despite the downward trend, JINRO soju logged a 10% growth in sales volume in 2020 compared to the previous year, selling 9 million more cases from the 83.6 million cases sold in 2019.

JINRO soju’s increased sales volume between 2019 and 2020 is higher than the annual sales of popular brands such as LVMH Hennessy with 7.9 million boxes; Pernod Ricard’s Jameson with 7.7 million boxes; and Diageo’s Baileys with 7.1 million boxes.

How It Began

Innovation

Chamisul

JINRO’s fresh breakthrough

Marketing

Hard liquor’s makeover

Exports

Putting a spin on soju: fruit flavors

Newtro

Bringing the past into the present

Design Evolution

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Lee Young-ae

1999

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Hwang Soo-jung

2000

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Park Ju-mi

2001

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Kim Jung-eun

2002

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Choi Ji-yeon

2003

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Kim Tae-hee

2004

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Sung Yu-ri

2005

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Nam Sang-mi

2006

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Kim Ah-joong

2007

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Kim Min-jung

2008

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Ha Ji-won

2009

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Lee Min-jung

2010

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Yoo Ah-in,
Moon Chae-won

2012

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Psy

2013

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Kim Young-kwang,
Lee Yu-bi

2014

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Gong Hyo-jin

2014

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IU

2015-2017

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IU,
Park Seo-joon

2018

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IU

2020

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IU

2021

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IU

2021

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ABV 35%

1924-1950, 1954-1955

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ABV 35%

1954-1961

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ABV 30%

1967-1974

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ABV 25%

1975-1983

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ABV 23%

2001

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ABV 19.8%

2007

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ABV 19.5%

2009

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ABV 19%

2012

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ABV 17.8%

2015

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ABV 17.2%

2018

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ABV 17%

2019

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ABV 16.9%

2020

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ABV 16.5%

2021

Taking Over The World

Unit: million USD

HITEJINRO has been exporting JINRO soju for years across more than 80 countries and its strong localization strategy has led JINRO soju to post an impressive growth in global sales, notably in Southeast Asia.

In 1968, JINRO soju was first exported to Vietnam. Since its foray into the region, JINRO soju has achieved great success by targeting mostly female consumers interested in Korean culture and cuisine. To increase its local presence, JINRO even opened up a BBQ franchise, JINRO BBQ, to boost its brand awareness and attract local consumers by introducing fun ‘soju drinking culture’.

In 1977, JINRO soju was exported to Japan, where it became the best-selling soju between 1996 and 2004. After a short stagnant period, JINRO soju experienced a strong rebound in 2020 as its fruit-flavored sojus became a huge hit among local consumers. In October 2020, the Chamisul brand landed a TV advertisement for the first time in Japan.

In Cambodia, HITEJINRO promoted its brand by wrapping a Rolls Royce with JINRO product images to attract local MZ consumers as well as hosting the JINRO 360 EDM Festival to commemorate the country’s biggest holiday, Chaul Chnam. HITEJINRO also made efforts to enhance accessibility for local consumers by partnering with local supermarkets, outlets and convenience stores. For example in Indonesia, HITEJINRO inked a deal with a major outlet Bottle Avenue & Vineyard to sell JINRO soju.

In Thailand, HITEJINRO achieved strong growth via marketing activities that focused on providing hands-on experiences for consumers. In December 2020, the Korean soju maker began to host a soju tasting event, 'JINRO Day', across Bangkok's major restaurants to increase its point of contact with local consumers. Also, JINRO soju made its way to Thailand's large supermarket chains such as BigC and Makro as well as the biggest convenience store, 7-Eleven, to enhance accessibility for the customers.

HITEJINRO’s fruit-flavored soju became a powerful driving force behind the company’s growth abroad, experiencing roaring success even in Russia -- the country of vodka. The fruit-flavored sojus became favorites among Russian MZers given the variety of fruit flavors and lower alcohol content compared to regular soju. HITEJINRO targeted the MZ generation in Russia by making good use of influencers such as YouTube streamers, food bloggers and bartenders to promote soju on social media networks.

This year, HITEJINRO’s soju exports to China topped 1 million boxes, which translates into around 30 million soju bottles. This is the second time that the annual exports of soju to a single region have surpassed 1 million boxes since exporting to Japan in 1994. Based on the current sales trend, China may even become HITEJINRO’s largest single importer by the year-end. The fruit-flavored soju hype has also gone viral in China with cocktail recipes such as mixing other beverages or fruits with JINRO’s fruit-flavored soju becoming huge hits among local millennials and Gen Zers who increasingly prefer fun and flavorful alcohol over hard liquor.

HITEJINRO’s push to globalize soju has been rewarded with strong export growth. Its fruit-flavored soju exports to China, Russia and Singapore logged an annual average triple-digit growth rate between 2017 and 2020. Also in the first half of 2021, exports of JINRO soju to Thailand surged over threefold compared to 2020 alongside increased sales of soju in Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Through HITEJINRO's globalization efforts which include broadening its target customers from Korean residents living abroad to local residents, JINRO soju has emerged as a global drink enjoyed by a worldwide audience, representing K-soju as one of the mainstays of the Korean wave, or popularity of Korean culture.