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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 across.

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 subway station.

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 various spirits.


Drinking etiquette 

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