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[Contribution] Need to make traditional liquor Korea’s representative brand

While on a plane back from an overseas trip to an exhibition on rural food, I asked without a great deal of anticipation whether the in-flight service includes Korean traditional liquor, besides wine, beer and whiskey.

To my surprise, the flight attendant immediately replied that they did indeed serve traditional liquor and had canned makgeolli. The fact that Korea’s traditional liquor was available on the plane made me incredibly grateful and glad, especially as the representative of Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corp.’s (aT) export promotion division.

In fact, Korea has always had a culture where -- much in the same way that people make their own food -- residents make their own liquor at home to drink. Due to strict regulations following the Japanese colonial occupation, this culture of making and drinking traditional drinks almost disappeared. But in the 1980s, with the hosting of the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Summer Olympics, attention to traditional Korean liquor was revived as part of global promotions. Following this revival, the Korean government has enacted laws to further promote traditional liquor and related industries. Because of this, the sector has experienced a steady growth in popularity and consumption. 

Shin Hyun-gon (center), executive vice president of food industry & export promotion at aT (aT)
Shin Hyun-gon (center), executive vice president of food industry & export promotion at aT (aT)

Nevertheless, according to a recent survey on the status of the alcohol industry, the average consumers of traditional alcohol are low-income and middle-aged people in their 40s. Traditional liquor still only accounts for 0.4 percent of the national alcohol market.

Traditional liquor is a high value-added food product that uses agricultural products such as rice, grains and fruits as the main ingredients. For Korea, due to the small land size, the price competitiveness of agricultural products has traditionally been incredibly weak. Traditional liquor can play a key role in improving the income of farmers by enabling the production and processing of agricultural products into high-value products. For example, distilled rice liquor has 13 times the value of its raw materials. If the government implements policies that enhance the production of rice, the use of domestic agricultural products as raw materials can also contribute to stabilizing the rice supply.

In the development of the traditional liquor industry, I believe that there is a need to first redefine the concept. According to the law, traditional liquor products refer to those made by experts as intangible cultural assets, and those made by using homegrown agricultural products as the main ingredients upon recommendation of each municipality. But these are all limited in concept, and in reality most manufacturers make the liquor products for better tax benefits.

There are many which we may think are traditional liquors, but not so legally, and therefore cannot truly be developed and fostered as “our liquor.” It is thus necessary to review our definition of traditional liquor and promote the true meaning to the related industry. Since 2013, the government has been running a project to search and select unique breweries of different regions to help them develop various tourism programs. So far 38 such breweries are in operation, with 331,000 visitors annually. Such growing attention shows that projects like these must be expanded.

In addition, in order to improve the quality of traditional liquors, we must constantly discover and cultivate high quality alcohol made from domestic agricultural products. Also, as we have used our liquor products in toasts and suppers at major events such as the inter-Korean summit, government agencies and public institutions, we should take advantage of their trade. It’s necessary to secure positions for these high-end liquors in not only traditional pubs, but also, at premium department stores and airport restaurants.

Recent trends of people drinking alone at home, as a small luxury, and light drinking can lead to new potentials in the market. Developing smaller portions and fun and chic package designs would be particularly appealing for women in their 20s and 30s, who consume less but lead the trend. Through this, traditional liquor consumption should be marketed so that it can settle into the culture of everyday life.
In addition, marketing should be increased on social media channels such as Instagram and YouTube, which are highly accessible to young customers.

Countries around the world are busy in their efforts to inherit and improve the brand image of their own traditional cultures. We should also develop our liquor products that embody our history, culture and identity into becoming something beyond a simple makgeolli drink to become the representative liquor that can stand against France’s wine, Germany’s beer and Japan’s sake, enjoyed globally. 

By Shin Hyun-gon
Executive vice president of food industry & export promotion at aT