For Yonghan Sa, the decision to offer soju at his small Korean restaurant in Rowland Heights was a no-brainer. The clear, vodkalike spirit is a staple in his home country.

“Everyone drinks soju in Korea,” said Sa, who owns Gam Ja Gol. “It’s like beer there.”

That’s why Sa stocks up every other week, buying about 240 bottles from Hite USA Inc., a South L.A. beverage distributor that sells the liquor to retailers throughout California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state.

But Sa said he was told Hite USA is unloading its inventory in anticipation of the end of its lucrative distribution contract with Koreatown’s Jinro America Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of soju maker Hite Jinro Co. of Seoul, South Korea.

“It’s kind of different right now,” Sa said. “They used to sell me boxes (of 24 bottles) but now they’re giving me six-packs. … They said some other company is going to take over.”

Actually, it is an open question whether some other company takes over the distribution rights. That’s because the whole matter is in court.

Jinro America’s desire to swap out its regional distributor is part of a heated dispute in which it claims Hite USA, headed by one of its former executives, got the distribution contract through self-dealing, bribery and fraud. The liquor maker took its claim to Los Angeles Superior Court late last year, seeking to find a way out of the contract that is set to end this December but is designed to renew automatically for four more years.

Deuk Lee, president of Hite USA and former president of Jinro America, has denied the allegations, arguing that the brewer is trying to oust him out of greed.

“Hite USA’s U.S. distributorship rights had become incredibly valuable – due to Deuk Lee and Hite USA’s efforts – and Hite Jinro now wanted to reclaim these rights despite the contractual provisions that protect Deuk Lee and Hite USA from such an outcome,” attorneys for Lee wrote in an April cross-complaint.

Trouble brewing

Soju, fermented mainly from rice, has a clean taste that somewhat resembles vodka. It’s particularly popular in the Korean community.

Hite Jinro sold 71 million 9-liter cases of soju around the world last year, up 7 percent from the previous year, making it – again – the best-selling spirit in the world, according to United Kingdom trade publication Drinks International’s annual list, published last month.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.