You can get a mojito, a cosmo and even assorted martinis at Vine, a new fondue restaurant and nightspot in Hollywood. That wouldn't be unusual at most bars in town, but Vine has only a beer and wine permit.
It's not breaking any laws, so what's in the cocktails? Soju, a Korean variation on vodka traditionally made from rice but more commonly from sweet potatoes these days. With 24% alcohol, soju is stronger than beer (4% to 5%) or wine (about 13%) but packs a weaker punch than virtually all vodkas, which are 40% alcohol.
A part of traditional Korean cuisine, soju is often enjoyed with meals, but because many Korean mom and pop restaurants had only beer and wine licenses, they were unable to sell it. (A new "general" or distilled spirits license costs $12,000 or more, according to Dave Gill, a district administrator for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and a beer and wine license runs only $548 and often faces far less opposition from neighbors.)
After some lobbying by the Korean Restaurant Owners Assn., a bill by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) passed in 1998, allowing the sale of soju by establishments previously licensed to sell only beer and wine in California. "Soju is served as a traditional drink accompanying spicy Korean meals and used to enhance the meal's flavor," reads the analysis of the bill.
At first, few bar owners outside the Asian community were aware of the bill, so sales of soju were limited to Korean and a few Japanese places. (The Japanese version, shochu, is almost identical and also can now be poured legally by establishments with beer and wine licenses.) But sales of soju shot up immediately, says Alex Kim, marketing manager for Jinro America Inc., the largest manufacturer of soju. "We saw a 35% to 40% increase in the first year since the law passed."
And he thinks that's only the beginning, once the traditional Korean beverage finds new drinkers. "Soju is enormous outside of the United States: Jinro sold 55 million cases around the world in 2001. We haven't aggressively marketed it to the mainstream, but we have a plan to do that in 2003," Kim says. The company will start where so many national trends are born: in Southern California.
David Reiss, proprietor of Sugar in Santa Monica, believes his was the first non-Asian establishment in Los Angeles to take advantage of the law. He inherited a beer and wine license when he took over the club about four years ago but was unable to upgrade to a full liquor license. He assumed that meant serving only beer, wine, champagne and sake.
"We got our sake from Mutual Trading, and a guy at the warehouse asked why I didn't also buy soju, since he knew I had a beer and wine license," Reiss recalls. "Once I found out about soju, it made our business completely different."
Sugar offers a menu of cocktails made with Kyungwoul "Green" soju, produced by Doosan Kyungwoul Co. in Seoul, which Reiss describes as "pretty neutral in flavor." Few order shots of the stuff, but soju mixed in Red Bull is popular, as are standards from lemon drops to cosmos, he says--pretty much everything where you'd use vodka."
He said he's sure other bars and clubs will catch on fast. In fact, he's the one who told Vine's owner, Simon Jones, about soju.
"He said, 'You're going to make a lot of money with this!' " Jones spent a few days experimenting with the stuff and doing research. "We went to some Korean restaurants," he says, "and saw that they served it straight up, or shaken with lemon or orange-flavored extract."
Servers at Vine don't go out of their way to explain soju. "If people ask for vodka-and-tonic or gin-and-tonic, [soju is] what we serve. We tell them if they don't like it, they don't have to drink it," Jones explains.
Vine's bartenders mix up a variety of soju-based cocktails, many of which are copies of vodka- and other spirits-based classics, as well as a few originals. As soju contains only about half the alcohol in vodka, it makes cocktails that feel and taste different.
Soju straight up is easy to drink, mild and fairly neutral but a bit watery. Unlike vodka, soju doesn't turn syrupy when left in the freezer. Few serious drinkers would confuse a shot of the stuff with an equal dose of super-premium vodkas like Pearl. "It tastes like a 'well' vodka," says Reiss. "Like Smirnoff."
It's in the custom cocktails at Vine that soju shines. Windex may have a less-than-appealing name, but the electric blue libation, concocted from soju, blue curacao, orange juice and ginger, has a pleasant thickness and sweetness. And the sour apple martini smells like fresh sliced apples and has a pleasant puckery quality.
Set decorator Ann Shea was eager to try the new drinks when she noticed Vine's list. "The lemon ginger cocktail tasted really good, like a martini, but not as harsh or strong," she says."I don't usually drink hard liquor," she adds. "Too much of a buzz too quickly. But I don't feel that way with soju. I can have three drinks and feel OK."
With its lower alcohol level, soju may be the drink for people who enjoy sipping a few cocktails over the course of an evening but don't want to get drunk. But will this newfound ability to pour soju-based drinks without a full liquor license have adverse consequences?
"I've done some checking with our offices," says Gill, "and we have not had any problems with the sale or service of soju in our licensed locations. Most of our licensees want to do a good job, and if this allows them to provide alcoholic beverages that are less intoxicating, that is not a bad thing."
Sugar, 814 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 899-1989. Vine, 1235 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (323) 960-0800.