Canned Soju Cocktails Are Bringing Korean Flavors Out of the Bottle

These three soju CEOs are reimagining what the distilled rice beverage can be.

jumo soju canned cocktails
Photo courtesy of Jumo
Photo courtesy of Jumo

Grace Choi always knew she wanted to start a brand that celebrated her heritage as Korean American—she just thought it’d be a K-beauty line or something to do with skincare. But as an event planner, she kept thinking about the types of activities she loves the most. “I started thinking about what I really enjoy doing, which is spending time with friends and family. And then what do I like doing when I’m with them?” she ponders. “Drinking soju.”

The idea came to Chio two years ago, after seeing the successes of White Claw and other low-ABV canned drinks. But she wanted to create one herself that embraced her Korean-American upbringing complete with flavors and ingredients that felt familiar to her. So she began cold calling canneries, ready to take her canned soju cocktail line, Jumo, from concept to reality.

But making a line of canned alcoholic beverages is not easy. Carol Pak, the founder of Sool which has a line of canned soju cocktails called Soku and canned makgeolli (unfiltered rice beer) called Makku—knows this intimately. Prior to starting Sool, she spent a year working at ZX Ventures, the innovation arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

“While working in that position, I had access to a lot of data, both locally and globally, and knew that the next five to ten years would be filled with a huge shift in the beverage environment,” Pak explains. On a trip to Korea visiting family friends, she perused the grocery store beverage aisles and it occurred to her that she, too, could be part of this shift. “My friends knew that I was working in the industry and mentioned that I should start looking into makgeolli because there was this resurgence of the younger generation trying to revive this ancient, outdated drink.”

So Pak started with Makku, but soju wasn’t far from her mind. “Everything was trending towards sessionable and canned, so it was a no-brainer to marry that RTD demand while representing soju and familiarizing people with it in a more accessible way,” Pak says. Soku was created with three flavors: strawberry, tangerine, and pineapple.

soku sool pineapple soju canned sparkling cocktail
Photo courtesy of Sool

“I left [ZX Ventures] because this is much more tied to my background, my passion, and my culture,” Pak explains. “I’d much rather be working on a Korean alcohol and introducing it to the U.S. market.”

Anyone vaguely familiar with soju is likely used to seeing the clear distilled beverage come in an iconic green bottle. Typically made from rice or other starchy crops, soju is commonly found at Korean barbecue feasts and Koreatown karaoke bars, where it’s taken as shots or sipped neat.

But Carolyn Kim, a lawyer and mother of two, felt that accepting that soju could only come from a mass-produced green bottle was limiting to what the spirit could really be. Instead, she started Yobo, an American-made soju brand produced using grapes from the Finger Lakes Region of New York—not rice.

“If you think soju ends with the green bottle, that’d be like thinking tequila ends with plastic handles,” a spokesperson for Yobo explains. “But there’s so much richness beyond that and Carolyn really wanted to build something that didn’t exist in the market.”

In creating a distilled soju brand, the next natural progression in this beverage industry fixated on RTD options was to make a canned cocktail version. Hunni was launched as an extension of Yobo, an effervescent sparkling soju option that clocks in at 100 calories per can with 4% ABV.

hunni soju yobo canned cocktails
Photo courtesy of Hunni

For all three founders, flavor plays a massive role in telling the story of their Korean-American upbringing. “We knew we were going to create a drink, it had to be delicious, and it had to pay homage to being Korean,” Choi says. “I wanted to include at least one Korean ingredient in my iterations.”

Jumo currently comes in three flavors: cucumber, Asian pear, perilla leaf; peach, lychee, rose; and mango, citrus mint, and yuja (yuja is the Korean word for yuzu). Even the cans, which feature colorful stripes, are meant to replicate the designs of hanbok, or traditional Korean garments. “I loved that we were able to call it yuja on the can because that just goes back to our mission,” Choi explains. “We really want to educate people about Korean culture and have them enjoy it as much as we do, even if it’s starting with Korean names for ingredients.”

Flavored soju reminded Kim of hazy nights and mornings spent in Koreatown, but it was important to strike a balance, as flavored sojus are often cloyingly sweet. So the brand’s flavors add acid, spice, and heat to a baseline recipe that Kim feels they’ve perfected. Hunni’s four flavors include yuzu and elderflower, peach and chili pepper, grape and ginger, and Korean pear, perilla leaf, and lime.

The definition of soju in America was once a shallow understanding of green bottles and sippable rice liquor, but thanks to these founders, Korea’s national spirit can be so much more. “Beverages are such a huge part of Korean culture, so I want to be a liaison to the greater population,” Pak says. “I grew up in Queens, was president of my Korean students’ association in high school and college, and did translation work for a nonprofit. This is just a natural progression in my career—continuing to share Korean culture.”

Choi feels similarly, reflecting on the world she wants her two-year-old to grow up in—a world in which he has an understanding of what it means to be Korean-American and a sense of pride in it. “I feel lucky that we can do this through Jumo,” Choi says. “We’re going to do everything we can to represent Korea.”

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.