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The Giving Spirit

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Perched near the pristine waters of New York’s Finger Lakes, a 10 foot-tall continuous still steams and sizzles as it produces one of the finest spirits ever produced on American soil: Yobo Soju. With gold medals from the World Spirits Competition, Yobo Soju is an award-winning, family-owned Soju producer started by a lawyer-mom, Carolyn Kim, and her husband, James Kumm. Soju is one of the most popular spirits in the world and serves as a celebratory drink in Korea and other parts of the world. However, there are relatively few Soju producers in the United States. This didn’t stop Carolyn Kim, James Kumm, and the team at Finger Lakes Distilling from crafting a premium Soju from clean, local ingredients. As a family-owned, sustainable company, Yobo Soju is making an impact on the spirit industry by giving back.

“Soju is a very traditional drink – a traditional spirit – that dates back to the 13th century,” John Noe, CEO and partner of Yobo Soju, shared with The Business Download. “Carolyn’s intention as the founder was to really elevate the product. It’s not typically an elevated product – it’s not premium. She wanted something that harkened back to her culture and her days of being younger and drinking, but something that was more refined.” Across the world, Soju is enjoyed with food, in celebrations, and with family. Carolyn created a clean, balanced spirit that celebrates the taste of Soju. With a fraction of the calories of vodka and relatively low alcohol content, Yobo Soju can be sipped, mixed, and savored any time.

Yobo is a Korean word used by couples meaning “sweetheart” or “honey.” Photo courtesy of Yobo Soju.

Unlike other Sojus in the world, Yobo Soju is made with Catawba grapes grown sustainably in the Finger Lakes and blended with the pristine water of Seneca Lake. “Working with grapes, when you smell it, it’s very aromatic – it’s very floral,” John said. “When you taste it, it’s incredibly smooth. You don’t get some of the finish or the aftertaste that you might get from other Soju products. She [Carolyn] wanted something very clean and refined.” The choice to use local grapes came from the desire to produce an authentic Korean-American spirit that combines the traditions of Korea with the tastes of America.

“The name [Yobo] is a Korean word that means spouse and honey and darling,” John shared. “If we think about what that word means in the broader sense, the community between pairs of people, multiple people, etc. we definitely want that to be how Yobo Soju is enjoyed.” With many people isolated and away from their communities, restaurants, and family, Yobo Soju made the choice to donate all of the profits made from January and February of 2021 to restaurants and workers suffering from the pandemic. “I grew up to small business owners, they had a donut store in Dallas, Texas. You feel that pain and it cuts deep,” John shared. “We just collectively made the call that we wanted to stand behind people that were struggling – people that reminded us of our parents, people who are our friends, and the people who frankly we rely on to grow our business.”

Fresh blackberries, soda water, and Yobo Soju create a bright, low-calorie cocktail that’s perfect for spring. Photo courtesy of Yobo Soju.

On a regular basis, Yobo Soju will make donations to minority-owned, small businesses that are struggling. They are using their spirit to spread not just the joy of the perfect spirit, but hope as well. They stand strong against the attacks taking place towards Asian Americans, and use their platform to gather together 33 organizations combatting Asian American discrimination. “I think discrimination against Asians is always kind of quiet and under-recognized,” John shared. “I’ve dealt with different forms of racism for a very long time, and to see it so pronounced that as it is now, it’s sort of perplexing, honestly.” In addition to learning about the struggles facing Asian Americans today, John thoughtfully suggested people be kinder and more thoughtful. As the country continues to heal and communities come together again, Yobo Soju represents a union between Korea and America, husband and wife, and of course, celebration and good spirits.


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