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'Rebuilding dining and drinking culture from scratch'

Kwangjuyo CEO seeks to change paradigm, move the world with premium liquor

During normal get-together parties at the year-end, Koreans chat and share past memories while roasting their beef and pork bellies over hot grills. But these parties can’t start without shots of distilled liquor soju or boilermaker drinks -- mix of beer and soju.

After endless and unstoppable shots of drinks not only in glasses but also bowls, some get up quietly and leave early, while others who stay behind get emotional which sometimes leads to tussles while their minds go blank, with no memory the next day.

Koreans are used to this drinking culture, which many -- especially the younger generation and foreign tourists -- find uneasy and uncomfortable.
Kwangjuyo CEO Cho Tae-kwon (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Kwangjuyo CEO Cho Tae-kwon (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

But Cho Tae-kwon, chief executive of Kwangjuyo, said this actually came from the Japanese during the colonization era when the country tried to annihilate Korean culture and weaken its spirits by making Koreans “alcoholics” like what the British did to the Chinese with opium.

“Distilled liquor soju derived from Japan. It was mostly for soldiers back then, but Japan introduced the drink to weaken the minds of Koreans and make them forget about hundreds of years of beautiful culture of Joseon Dynasty,” the 68-year-old executive said in an interview at his high-end restaurant Bicena in Itaewon.

“Culture is what identifies us -- Korea. But the culture -- food or drinks -- we have and say we enjoy at the moment has come or copied from somewhere else, Japan and the U.S., which we really can’t say is our identity.”

Kwangjuyo is a premium ceramics and tableware maker, which Cho took over from his father at the age of 40. Established in 1963, it has expanded its business into making high-end traditional liquor brand Hwayo, and restaurant business. It has two premium restaurants -- Bicena in Itaewon and Gaon in Sinsa-dong -- and supplies its tableware to Cheong Wa Dae, while its Hwayo liquor is served at luxury hotels overseas including in Hong Kong.

In order to rediscover Korea’s true cultural identity and globalize its food and liquor, Cho said Korea needs to rebuild its culture from the ground up.

“That is what innovation is -- changing the current paradigm by restarting from zero. We, the entrepreneurs not the government, have to do this by recreating and redefining our tradition and improving the quality of our dining and drinking culture from scratch,” Cho said.

“We should then seek recognition from overseas, and globalize our true (food and drink) culture. The restaurants we are running and the liquor brand we have -- we have been building them from zero.”

He added that Korea cannot promote culture and inspire the world without having its own true liquor brands.

“Japan, China, Turkey and European countries all have global drinks like sake, wine, cognac,” Cho said.

“Korea has none,” he said, adding that most other countries such as Japan and China are well ahead of Korea in food.

One of the things that stand in the way for Korean premium liquor to go global is the sophisticated and comprehensive taxation system, the executive said.

Korea levies taxes not only on the amount of liquor bottles companies produce and the alcohol content, but also practically all aspects of what goes into the liquor production, including packaging and bottle costs, advertising, revenues and profits.

“We have to pay those taxes periodically as soon as we ship them out of the plant, and even before we actually make sales,” Cho said.

“There are a lot of risks companies such as mine have to bear to make and ship our brand at home and overseas.”

Nevertheless, Cho said that nobody “loses” in building and promoting culture and lifestyle, but can only “gain” from it.

“What does Korean wave and promoting culture mean? It means moving the hearts of people around the world. Do you believe we can move and impress them with distilled liquor soju? I don’t think so,” he said.

By Park Hyong-ki (
Korea Herald Youtube