American manufacturers of a traditional Korean distilled spirit came to Sacramento this year seeking equal footing with their foreign competitors. They got a lesson that some things at the Capitol are more powerful than an economic development argument – even for a Republican.
A bill that would have expanded the definition of soju to allow sales of domestic crafts in more locations was pulled before its first hearing last week after the author, South Korea-born Assemblyman Steven Choi, said he heard concerns from top Korean soju companies and members of the Korean American media that it would promote an inauthentic product.
“I have two different districts, so to speak,” the Irvine Republican said, referring to his Orange County-based 68th Assembly District and the Korean community. “I don’t want to be a bad guy coming from Korean culture.”
In 1998, California passed a law allowing retailers with a beer and wine license to sell soju, defined in statute as “an imported Korean alcoholic beverage.” Sponsored by an association of Korean restaurateurs, supporters said that it would help small-business owners who could otherwise not afford much more expensive liquor licenses.
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But a group of craft soju makers, a handful of which have emerged in the United States in recent years, argues that the law discriminates against them. They asked Choi to carry Assembly Bill 1046 this session, removing “imported” from the statutory definition of soju and thereby permitting all sales of the drink, as well as the Japanese equivalent shochu, with a beer and wine license.
The effort was spearheaded by James Kumm, whose wife owns the New York-based Yobo Soju, which is made from distilled grapes instead of the typical rice. Kumm said the current California law is “beyond unfair” and amounts to “economic protectionism” for Korean soju. He said AB 1046 would enable “American companies to benefit the way foreign companies have benefited.”
“This law is protecting, for some reason, the Korean companies,” he said. “How are you going to support the Korean company over the American company?”
After meeting about the bill with David Kim, a lobbyist representing South Korea-based Jinro, the world’s leading soju producer, Choi said he had “no interest in negatively pushing it against their will.” Kim declined to comment.
Choi, who immigrated to the United States in 1968, said he plans to bring AB 1046 back next year, giving him more time to reach a compromise with Korean soju manufacturers that is beneficial to everyone.
“I want to develop American businesses,” he said, “but at the same time, I don’t want to disadvantage this Korean industry.”