Women in heavy-drinking South Korea fuel demand for lighter booze

Thu Sep 10, 2015 3:41am EDT
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By Rebecca Jang

SEOUL (Reuters) - Jeon Seo-jin, 25, finds traditional soju, the clear grain-based liquor popular in South Korea, too strong for her liking.

Instead, to wind down after work as a sales team trainer at a cosmetics company in Seoul, she joins her friends for a glass of the fruit-flavored lower-alcohol soju that Korean spirits companies began rolling out this year.

"It gives you time to enjoy the taste and talk with friends - unlike regular soju, which is too strong," said Jeon as she shared a drink with a female colleague at Kodachaya, a central Seoul bar popular with the young after-work crowd.

Professional women like Jeon are driving a change in the way beverage companies look at South Korea, which hard-drinking men have made Asia's biggest alcohol consuming country on a per capita basis.

As more women join the workforce in South Korea, a growing share of younger women are becoming regular drinkers, shifting consumption patterns in a male-dominated society where post-work drinking sessions are a staple of office life. Rising incomes and a greater interest in health also mean fewer Koreans merely seek out the cheapest way to get drunk.

Imports of sparkling wine, which is especially popular among young Korean women, rose nearly 20 percent in January-July, while wine imports overall are on track to surpass those of whiskey for the first time this year, customs data shows.

"There was pent-up demand for change in flavor and alcohol content among South Korean drinkers, especially among females as more and more of them join the workforce," said Lee Kyung-ju, an analyst at Korea Investment and Securities.

In March, Lotte Chilsung Beverages launched a citron-flavored soju called Soonhari, which means soft, with 14 percent alcohol, lower than the usual 21 percent. The company says it sold 40 million bottles in the first 100 days.   Continued...

Bottles of fruit flavoured and low-alcohol soju are seen in this picture illustration at a pub in Seoul, South Korea, September 9, 2015.  REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji