Meet the Korean American Mom and Lawyer Redefining Soju in the U.S.
Carolyn Kim wants to share a drink with you. But not just any drink. She wants to share her own extremely special brew.
Kim, a lawyer, mom, and Korean American woman, wanted to bring a taste of her heritage mixed with a splash of her home state of New York to the masses. So, she blended it all together to create Yobo Soju, a traditional liquor from Korea with an unexpected twist.
"Soju is the liquor of Korea. It is a clear, neutral spirit that is usually under 25% alcohol," Kim told Travel + Leisure via email. "Traditionally, soju is made from rice, but these days, you see a lot more using other grains, starches, and a mix of base ingredients."
After indulging in the Korean food scene in New York, Kim says she found herself inspired by local chefs taking Korean food to new levels and felt compelled to create a drink to match. A drink that also happens to be naturally free of gluten, sugar, preservatives, additives, and is even keto friendly.
"They used traditional flavors and had their own unique vision and execution," she said of the chefs around her. "Inspired by the elegance and quality of their food, I saw an opportunity and a challenge to elevate soju to match what these chefs were doing in the kitchen."
What she created is a mix of old and new, bringing in a few traditional ingredients and blending it with sweet fruits for a new kick.
"As far as I know, Yobo is the only soju made from grapes, and maybe even fruit," she says. "Also, Yobo is made in the Finger Lakes region of New York at a craft distillery using locally sourced and sustainably farmed grapes. With grapes, I loved the potential for a delicate, floral soju."
While her product may not be entirely "traditional," Kim explains, it was born out of love for both her heritage and love for the feeling of sharing a good drink with good friends.
"Yobo is born from very fond memories with friends, drinking soju from green bottles in Koreatown and then getting a slice of pizza at 2 a.m. I like to think that Yobo is rooted in layers of Korean and American culture," she says. "My hope is that it contributes to the growing conversation of food and beverage culture."
It's also a drink that is helping serve a higher purpose in 2021. The company kicked off the year by donating funds to Rethink Food, an organization that supports restaurants and staff who may be struggling due to COVID-19, and even partners with community-based organizations to provide meals to those in need.
The company also serves as a testament to the power of women making moves in an industry historically dominated by men.
"Women owners are underrepresented in the U.S. spirits industry," Kim says. "Minority women, even more so. That being said, I've been fortunate to have worked with so many smart and supportive industry partners who are curious about soju and Yobo's story. One of our main challenges is that many consumers don't know what soju is. But we also see that as our biggest opportunity, redefining what soju means for anyone curious to explore soju with us."
The brand, and Kim, are also working hard to raise the profile of Asian American owners at a time when it's needed most.
"The violence against Asian Americans is heartbreaking and hits us on a very personal level," she says. "The message we have is to be visible, vocal, and intolerant of violence. As an Asian American brand, we want to play our part, to build up what it means to be Americans with Asian cultures and backstories worth sharing."
Kim adds, for those who feel compelled to get involved, there are different ways to support efforts to stop violence against Asian Americans, including donating your time and/or money to the organizations doing the work and to also put in the work to learn more about the issues, and stand up for Asian American communities and other communities of color.
- From left: Cho So-soon, the owner of Geumguk Gukwacha, a café widely known for its chrysanthemum tea; a centuries-old tree at Bukchondaek mimics the shape of the Nakdong River, which curves around Hahoe Village.
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