A Guide to Drinking in Korea
Drinking is an integral part of Korean society. Koreans
like to drink on many occasions, such as when they are meeting friends, doing
business, celebrating success, drowning misery or unwinding after a hard day at
work. However, they rarely drink alone, unless they have serious personal
problems, and refrain from drinking during the day. Korea has a reputation for
being a place of hard drinking. This is true and false. At first, I was
intimidated by stories I’d heard and read about the legendary drinking ability
of Koreans. It’s true that Koreans drink regularly and often to the point of
vomiting, but they get drunk as easily as anybody else and a large percentage of
them are in fact allergic to alcohol and turn red after the first glass. In
short, they’re out there drinking, but if you’re used to drinking, you should be
able to keep up with them.
What to drink
Below is a list of some of the Korean alcohol you may come
Soju – Korean vodka that is generally watered down to
around 20 percent alcohol. There are few brands of Soju that have a higher
alcohol content – Soju from Andong can be as high as 45 percent alcohol. There
is some mystery surrounding the ingredients of Soju. Whether Soju is made from
sweet potatoes, rice or ‘just chemicals’, is fiercely debated amongst Koreans.
Baek Se Ju – A filtered rice wine infused with ginseng
which will supposedly allow you to live to be 100 (14% alcohol).
Heuk Ju – A filted rice wine made from black rice that
tastes very similar to Baek Se Ju, but without the Ginseng bite (13% alcohol).
Chung Ha – Korean sake (13% alcohol).
Makkeoli – An unfiltered rice wine often drunk in the
mountains which reportedly gives the worst hangovers (6% alcohol).
Dong Dong Ju – An unfiltered rice wine found only in
drinking places modeled on traditional inns (15-20% alcohol).
Bok Bun Ja – A raspberry wine (15% alcohol).
Where to drink
There are many places to drink in Korea. What follows is a
generalized list of the types of places you can find near any university or
Bar – Bars in Korea can range from those catering to
business men after work that generally serve either scotch whisky or bottled
beer, to up market dating places that serve mixed drinks, cocktails, bottled
beer and whole bottles of spirits. Some of these bars even have cocktail shows
with bartenders juggling the bottles accompanied by dance music.
Hof – Taken from the German word meaning “farm house”, hofs
are large European style drinking halls which serve draft beer. Hofs which brew
their own beer on site are now becoming popular.
Min Sok Ju Jeom – These places recreate a traditional
drinking environment of a hundred or more years ago. They have clay and wood
interiors decorated with Korean and Chinese script wallpaper and period pieces,
such as farming tools, hanging from the walls. They serve Soju (including
cocktail Soju which is made by mixing Soju with fruit juice), various rice wines
and draft beer.
Rock Café – Rock cafés are western style bars with a dance
floor that serve bottled beer, mixed drinks and cocktails.
Night (Club) – In Korea, nightclubs don’t have a bar and
patrons can’t stand around drinking and talking without a seat. Everyone is
assigned a table, and anju (plates of food) must be ordered along with any
drinks as soon as one is seated. Nightclubs serve bottled beer and bottles of
In Korea you should not pour your own drink. It is
customary for others to pour your drink for you and for you to pour for them.
Whether you pour using one or both hands is important. If the person for whom
you are pouring is older than you or of higher status, then you should pour
holding the bottle with two hands, otherwise pour with one hand.
Often you will hear the phrase “one shot” being shouted in
places where alcohol is being consumed. This is a Korean version of the phrase
“bottoms up” – an imperative to drink a whole glass of alcohol completely
before putting it back on the table. My experience is that if you are not up to
drinking a whole glass in one gulp, you can suggest “pan shot” which means “half
shot”. This will usually be accepted by those with whom you are drinking and
will take some of the burden off you while allowing you to “keep face” and not
destroy the mood of the gathering.
If you have reached a point of intoxication where your
body has decided that its stomach’s contents are excess baggage that need to be
ejected, then rest assured that your Korean friends will help by hitting you on
the back while you are vomiting. I personally don’t feel this practice helps me
when I’m down on my knees bringing back out what had once been on a plate in
front of me, but most Koreans believe it is of assistance.
To conclude this brief guide to drinking in Korea, I would
like to urge you to pace yourself while drinking unfamiliar fire water, and
remember that any ill feeling you have the next day can be cured by consuming
any of the numerous spicy soups that can be found in Korean restaurants.
Kon Bae (Cheers)!
by Robert Reginald