The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky argued that a society can be judged according to its prisons. Well, you can also learn a thing or two by how the people drink, and this is especially true of South Korea. Korean people have been distilling alcohol for over 1,000 years and it is embedded deeply in the culture. Alcohol plays a significant role in celebrating holidays, honoring ancestors, and making friends.
If you plan to visit the Land of Morning Calm, then you should be aware that it’s also the land of Evening Chaos. Drinking—often, heavy drinking—plays a large role in Korean society. According to Euromonitor, their weekly per-capita intake of liquor shots is the world’s highest at 13.7. (Russia is second with a mere 6.3.) So before you step off the plane, here’s what you need to know to have a drink or several in South Korea.
Types of Alcohol
Korea is home to over 1,000 varieties of alcohol, most of which are low-proof (5-20 percent ABV) drinks made with rice, yeast, and nuruk—an enzyme derived from wheat. Aside from grains, alcohol can also be made from starches, herbs, flowers and other botanicals. Here are a few of the most common, popular and idiosyncratic:
The first thing to know about soju is that it’s not a wine, no matter how many people call it one. It’s a clear, semi-sweet, distilled spirit made from rice, wheat, barley, potatoes, or tapioca. Known as the “common people’s drink,” soju is almost always consumed as a shot. It’s so popular in Korea that it makes up 97 percent of liquor sales. The word itself means “burned liquor,” and burning is exactly what it does to your insides if you gulp too much homebrew from a roadside tent (more to follow). Soju was traditionally drunk to commemorate the new year and to repel evil spirits and disease.
Also known as makgeolli (막걸리), this is Korea’s oldest rice wine. In fact, at well over 1,000 years old, it’s probably drawing a pension by now. Takju is milky, sweet and somewhat bubbly. It’s usually made from rice, though corn, millet, black beans, or sweet potatoes can also be used. Takju is fermented but unfiltered, which is why the drink is cloudy with muddy residue at the bottom. It’s traditionally served in a bowl rather than a glass, because it’s nearly a solid. As an added bonus, takju is loaded with protein and vitamins; it’s supposedly good for the skin and boosts energy.
From Gyeonggi-do, an area surrounding Seoul, dongdongju means “floating alcohol.” It’s thicker than takju and is typically consumed with a spoon. Dongdongju is a very young wine. The spirit is strained from the mash just a few days after fermentation begins. Because of this, the rice doesn’t completely break down and the resulting drink is thick and rather lumpy. It’s also served with a few grains of rice floating on the surface hence the name "floating alcohol."
Gwasilju refers to Korean wines derived from fruit. The sweet and tart wines are produced from plums, persimmons, apples, grapes, mulberries, or other fruits. The most common varieties are maesil-ju (매실주), made from green plums, and bokbunja-ju (복분자주), which comes from Korean black raspberries. These wines are often regional specialties. Wild pear wine—munbaeju (문배주)—is a trademark of Seoul, and ginger/pear wine—igangju (이강주)—hails from Jeonju, a provincial capital in western Korea.
Korean distillers and wine-makers can make alcohol from almost anything. Gahyangju, for instance, is derived from flowers or aromatics, including azalea, lotus, chrysanthemum, forsythia, acacia, honeysuckle, wild rose, peach blossoms, ginseng, and ginger. As with fruit wines, gahyangju are often associated with a particular city, town, or province. They’re aromatic with bold, distinctive flavors.
Similar to takju, but less opaque, yakju is also called cheongju (청주), beopju (법주) or myeongyakju (명약주)—though it seems cheongju is most common. Yakju is a wine made from boiled or steamed rice that’s passed through multiple stages of fermentation. This yields a more refined beverage with a clean, well-balanced taste. However, the nature of yakju—like so many Korean drinks—is ambiguous and complex. It’s sometimes distilled, which makes it a spirit, and medicinal herbs or spices can be added to the mix, which changes the flavor dramatically. Some varieties are made with glutinous or black rice, and flowers or spices can be added, which transforms a yakju into a gwasilju or gahyangju.
This herbal rice wine is said to improve male sexual potency. It does not, though the bottle is undeniably phallic.
Drinking Practices & Etiquette
In Korea, you don’t just go out for a drink. There are rules. Not everyone follows all the rules all the time, especially young Koreans, tourists, ex-pats, and foreign soldiers stationed in the country. It's also important to note that foreigners aren't expected to know or follow the rules, so don't stress about memorizing everything before your night out. Regardless, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with drinking etiquette.
Korean drinking culture is rooted in the 14th-century Hyanguemjurye. This was a meeting of Confucian scholars whose beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors dominated the country. The scholars would meet, discuss important issues, and drink, a lot. However, it was also important to display good manners and adhere to accepted social practices. Leading academics would teach their young colleagues to respect their elders and to drink politely. This still continues today. Korean parents, grandparents, and other authority figures teach young people how to drink with proper etiquette.
The first rule is how to give and receive alcohol. You must always pour drinks for others before drinking yourself and, when you offer someone a drink, use two hands to pour. These are signs of respect. While pouring a drink, hold the bottle in your right hand and support your right wrist with your left hand. Always wait until a glass is completely empty before refilling it. It’s traditionally considered rude to pour your own drink, especially before serving others, but getting the last drop from a bottle is considered good luck.
If an older person offers a drink to a younger person, the drink must be accepted with sincere, emphatic gratitude and politeness. Younger people turn away from their elders as they drink, cover their mouths, and avoid eye contact. They also should wait for elders to drink first. The youngest person present pours drinks for the others, starting with those who are of the highest age and status. How do you know someone’s age? It’s quite common, when Koreans meet, to ask the other person’s age. If you notice someone raising a glass or pouring with only one hand, this is a senior person. Or a socially inept one.
Accepting and Refusing Drinks
When someone offers you a drink, it's polite to accept it, even if you're not keen on drinking more. If you don’t drink alcohol, that’s obviously your choice, but it is possible that your drinking companions will take offense. However, in recent years not drinking alcohol in group outing is less taboo, especially for foreigners. The best way to avoid drinking too much without potentially offending your drinking partners is to keep your glass partially full—this way, no one will refill it.
Poktanju (“bomb drinks”) are quite popular. This is when you mix two existing drinks for a turbocharged cocktail. You might drop a shot of whiskey into a glass of mekju (beer), or down a blend of soju and beer (called somek or somaek). These bomb drinks are usually prepared yourself by ordering a bottle of soju and a glass of beer and mixing to your preference.
What to Expect During Hoesik
When Koreans go out drinking, the point is to socialize, have fun, and loosen up. As such, Korean drinking sessions tend to be full-scale “party ‘til you puke” scenarios that can last well into the morning hours. The intense pressure to keep up with everyone else can naturally lead to overindulgence.
This is especially true during hoesik, a night out with coworkers. This is often a job requirement very similar to Japan's nomikai with the intent of getting to know each other better. The boss might be present, but that doesn’t slow down the partying. Depending on where you work, the hoesik might be monthly or weekly affair. After dinner, the event evolves into a long, determined pub crawl, with the occasional karaoke break. Beer often comes first, then soju, and finally whiskey. If you're invited on a hoesik, strap yourself in for a long night of serious drinking. That said, hoesiks have been on the decline in recent years, after instances of alcohol poisoning, sexual misconduct, injury, and death.
Black Knights and Black Roses
Say you're out drinking with some new friends, maybe playing some drinking and you've reached your limit. If you still have some alcohol left, or you lose the game and have to drink you can appoint someone as a black knight (male) or black rose (female) to drink in your stead. However, your pinch-drinker gets to make a wish, and this wish is often embarrassing. For example, you might have to take off your shirt, shoes, and socks and hop around like a bunny in front of your colleagues.
Where to Go For a Drink
Now that you know what and how to drink, a few words about where to do it:
An international neighborhood in central Seoul, Itaewon is fun, lively, and filled with bars, nightclubs, live music, and ethnic restaurants. Home to the Yongsan Garrison, a US army base, Itaewon is also where you'll find a lot of ex-pats and larger-sized clothing.
Noraebang, or karaoke rooms, are wildly popular in Korea. Collect a group of friends, have a few nerve-settling drinks, book a private room, and start singing. Where should you go to find one? They're all over the peninsula, just look for the glowing signs or a microphone.
Chimaek is a relatively new phenomenon. From the words chikin (“fried chicken”) and maekju (“beer”), it refers to pairing fried chicken with beer. Fried chicken is one of Korea’s most popular anju (“drinking foods”) which also includes pork belly, fish jerky, nuts, twigim (assorted fried foods), seaweed, and dried squid. Due to its immense popularity, there are now chimaek celebrations in Korea throughout the year. The Seoul Chimaek Festival is in October and Daegu, Korea’s fourth-largest city, holds its own festivities in July. These are multi-day events with food, drink, cultural displays, and live performances.
Hongdae is a vibrant Seoul neighborhood at the crossroads of several universities. The district is always crowded at night and there's no shortage of cheap food, dive bars, soju tents, karaoke rooms, and young people.
Like a pub meets a 7/11, you can grab your own beer from a refrigerator or pour one straight from the tap. Self bars often feature drinking games, bomb shots, and very few Confucian scholars.
A pojangmacha or soju tent is a small area covered by a tent that sells soju and other drinks or food. These are simple, undecorated, and inexpensive. They’re all over, but the best place to find them is outside bus, train, and subway stations. In the cold months, there will be a portable heater, but don’t expect much in the way of service or cleanliness. Soju tents are a place to eat and drink quickly, often while standing up. They don’t usually take cash, so bring credit cards.
This isn't a drinking location per se, but most Korean convenience stores carry varieties of soju and beer. Solo drinking isn't common but if you want a quiet night at your hotel, you can always head to the nearest 7/11, GS25, or CU to grab some ramyeon and a bottle of soju or two.