Let’s have a drink! – A look at the Korean drinking culture

A scene often appearing in the Korean TV dramas is people drinking alcoholic beverages and getting drunk. When you travel to South Korea, you can often see people drinking alcoholic beverages in green bottles called soju. According to a survey by the Korea Alcohol and Liquor Industry Association, in 2010, 93.8% of men and 83.8% of women said they regularly consumed alcohol. Alcohol is indeed an integral part of the Korean life.  Let’s talk about the Korean drinking culture in this blog post.

Why do Koreans love drinking?

The Koreans believe that drinking is the quickest way of bonding with friends, colleagues and family.  According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Korea Alcohol and Liquor Association, 71.8% of respondents regarded drinking as a necessary element of social life.

Koreans’ love for drinking could be dated back to as far as the third century B.C. when communal rites were followed by days of drinking, singing and dancing. Drinking alcohol also served sacred purposes like communicating with god and pouring blessing on the couple during weddings.  As a result, seasonal festivities were often associated with heavy drinking. It is said that when Western sailors appeared in Korea in the 19th century, the Koreans were able to drink them under the table!

Even nowadays, drinking is still an essential part of the Koreans’ life experience which may start from as early as their high school days.  It is said that final-year high school students sitting for the university entrance exam should drink alcohol 100 days before the exam to avoid misfortune on the day of the exam.  Once in the university, drinking is a common rite during orientation and student gatherings.

When the people enter the workforce, drinking is an integral part of the dinner gatherings with the supervisors and colleagues.  A conventional practice of such dinner gatherings is to pass one’s glass to another person.  If you receive a glass of liquor from a colleague, you are expected to drink it down and return the glass to the colleague.  Then the colleague pours liquor into the glass again and passed it to another person to drink and that person returns the glass after drinking.  In this manner, the glass is passed around and back and forth until everyone gets drunk. Moreover, there are usually multiple rounds of drinking at different venues on a single night.  Such multiple rounds of drinking often lead to excessive drinking.

However, recently, it is noted that the Koreans has cut back on binge drinking due to increasing concern for personal health and government campaigns urging people to drink more responsibly, and there has been increased demand for low alcohol products. Moreover, people used to drink at 4 different places a night but now it’s more like one or two.

Representative Korean Alcoholic Beverages 

There are many different types of alcoholic beverages in South Korea but the most representative ones should be soju and makgeolli which you can often come across in the Korean TV dramas and in the Koreans’ gatherings.

Soju (소주)

Soju, distilled from rice or sweet potatoes, is clear and transparent usually with an alcohol content of 16% to 25% and is regarded as the “Korean vodka”.  In South Korea, soju is sold in 360-ml green bottles and drunk in small 50-ml shot glasses. Soju is a distilled spirit extracted by heating fermented alcoholic beverages in a distiller and it is said that the method for making soju was learned from the Mongol invaders (who liked intoxicating liquors made by distilling) in the 13th century.  One of the popular brands of soju is the Jinro Soju which topped the 2013 Drinks International annual list of best-selling global spirits.

Soju is a very popular alcoholic beverage among the Koreans.  It is believed that drinking soju could help reduce the increasing stress brought by the highly industrialized and urbanized lifestyle. Moreover, soju is relatively cheap – you can buy a bottle of soju at a supermarket or convenience store for just 2,000 won.  In 2012, the per capita (over 15 years old) soju consumption reached 31 litres, which was equivalent to 88 bottles per person. According to a report by Euromonitor released in 2014, for hard liquor (or spirits), the average person of drinking age in South Korea drank 13.7 shots per week which was more than the Russians (6.3 shots), the Americans (3.3 shots) and the Brits (2.3 shots). The Koreans’ relatively high level consumption of hard liquor (or spirits) may be due to the love for soju which accounts for 97% of South Korea’s spirits market.

Koreans also like to mix soju with other alcoholic beverages – the most popular mixed drink is the “bomb drink” (폭탄주 – poktanju) which is a mixture of soju and beer. Koreans like to make the “bomb drink” on the spot with a ritual called “domino shot” which I find very interesting.  The domino shot involves placing a series of shot glasses of soju on top of glasses of beer and then knocking down the first shot glass which causes the series of shot glasses to fall into the glasses of beer like domino. You can click the links to the following videos to see how the domino shot is done:

A domino shot using a fork

A domino shot using fingers

A funny domino shot by Psy

On the other hand, if you really want to experience genuine local Korean culture,  a good place to enjoy the soju is the pojangmacha (포장마차 – a small tented street stall with plastic tables and chairs erected along the streets) where you can drink soju with delicious street foods at a cheap price.  You can watch this video to see people eating street foods and drinking soju at the pojangmacha.

Makgeolli (막걸리)

The milky-coloured makgeolli has an alcohol content of 5% to 7%, is made by fermenting a mixture of steamed rice and water, and is usually drunk with bowls.  As it contains 10 essential amino acids, vitamin B and C, dietary fibre and lactic acids, and has low calories (only 46 kcal per 100 ml), it is considered as a healthy drink by the Koreans.  It is also said that makegeolli can help prevent high blood pressure and heart diseases, and suppresses the growth of cancer cells.

In the traditional agriculture-based society, it was believed that the mild alcohol content of makgeolli could help boost productivity of the farmers. Until 1970’s, makgeolli was Korea’s number one alcoholic beverage but was later overtaken by soju.  Recently, with the increasing concern for well-being among the Koreans, makgeolli has been making its comeback, especially among the young people.

Anju (안주) – a must-item for drinking

One main feature of the Korean drinking culture is that anju is a must-item to accompany the alcoholic drinks. Anju generally refers to food eaten with alcoholic beverages and can be main dishes and/or side dishes.  The alcoholic drinks usually drunk by the Koreans do not have strong taste so anju can help produce the best combination of flavours.  There are some pairings of drinks and anju which the Koreans consider as good match, for example, soju with barbecued meat, spicy soup or jokbal (족발 – seasoned pig’s trotters), makgeolli with bindaetteok (빈대떡 – mung bean pancakes) or pajeon (파전 – green onion pancakes), and beer with fried chicken, tempura or fruit.

Haejangguk (해장국) –  Korean hangover cure

The Koreans’ most common way of relieving the hangover caused by heavy drinking the previous day is by drinking hot soup called haejangguk. Haejangguk can be made with bean sprouts (콩나물해장국 – kongnamul haejangguk) or beef/pork bones with meat.  It is said that bean sprouts contain a lot of aspartic acid which helps decomposition of alcohol.  The meat haejangguk is rich in iron which helps overcome fatigue and hangover.  Perhaps heavy drinking is so common that there are restaurants offering haejangguk in South Korea.

Drinking Etiquette

You should learn the following Korean drinking etiquette to avoid offending the Koreans who drink with you:

Never pour your own glass, let someone else do it.  Also never pour alcohol into a glass that is partially filled.

It is considered rude for anyone to have an empty glass.  So, if a person is pouring for the others, others should not drink until someone pours that person a shot.  After all the glasses are full, the drink is downed in unison by all around the table to shouts of “One Shot!” or “Bottoms up!”.

Unless you are drinking with friends, by pouring liquor or raising glass with one hand, you are establishing that you are the senior person.  So, if you are not, always hold bottles or glasses with both hands or by supporting your right arm with your left hand which touches the right elbow. Moreover, if you are drinking with a senior person, you should turn your body sideways away from the the senior to block the drinking action from the senior.  You can watch this video for a demonstration by Psy of the correct behaviour when drinking with different parties.

Unless you have a very good reason, refusing alcohol is considered rude by the Koreans.  It is generally better to accept and discreetly get rid of the unwanted alcohol (e.g., under the table, into your water cup, into a plant pot, etc.) than to refuse it.  Also, unless you want to drink a lot, after finishing the first shot, drink the subsequent shot slowly and don’t let your glass get empty; otherwise, it is continuously filled.  You should also note that “I don’t drink” is not considered as a good reason and people usually uses excuses such as religion, pregnancy, being sick/taking medicine, having to drive, or being allergic to alcohol.

Alcohol as a Theme in Popular Culture

In the Korean TV dramas, you can frequently see people drinking and getting drunk or a drunken woman being carried by a men on his back.  You can watch this video for such scenes from the TV drama, Dandelion Family (민들레 가족).

Psy’s song, “Hangover”, depicts the heavy drinking culture of the Koreans and in the music video, you can see familiar scenes like domino shot and green bottles of soju. You can watch this music video by clicking the link below:

“Hangover” sung by Psy featuring Snoop Dogg 

A new movie called “Makgeolli Girls” (막걸스 – “Makgirls”) will be released in South Korea on 21 May 2015.  The movie is based on a real-life story of high school girls who were successful in developing makgeolli and depicts the challenges faced by the high school girls in keeping the taste and tradition of makgeolli.  You can watch the movie’s trailer by clicking the link below:

Makgeolli Girls Movie Trailer

If you enjoy drinking, next time you go to South Korea, try to experience the local Korean culture by eating street foods and drinking soju at the pojangmacha – you will surely find the experience interesting.  However, please don’t get drunk; otherwise you may need to go to the restaurant to have the haejangguk the next morning!  Happy drinking! 🙂

Reminder: The next post will be published on 19 May 2015. Watch this space!

 

References:

‘Makgeolli Girls” holds press premiere“, bntNews, 2015-05-07

Korea’s heavy-drinking culture result of burnout syndrome“, The Korea Times, 2015-01-27

Dominic Dinkins, “Short guide to drinking culture in Korea“, DramaFever, 2014-12-11

Refreshing haejangguk for sobering up after a night of drinking“, Koreataste, 2014-07-04

Jason Strother, “What Psy’s ‘Hangover’ doesn’t say about Korea’s drinking culture“, The Wall Street Journal Asia, 2014-07-01

Julie Jackson, “Psy, Snoop spotlight Korea drinking culture with Hangover“, The Korea Herald, 2014-06-10

Bernard Rowan, “Korea’s drinking culture“, The Korea Times, 2014-05-13

Matt Blake, “South Koreans drink TWICE as much the Russians and more than five times as much as the Brits“, Mail Online, 2014-02-03

Norman Miller, “Soju: the most popular booze in the world“, The Guardian, 2013-12-02

National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Korea: Sul, Republic of Korea, Oct 2013

Korea’s drinking culture and the necessity of anju“, Koreataste, 2013-06-10

Korea too tolerant of alcohol consumption“, The Chosun Ilbo, 2012-05-31

Christopher Cha, “Expert’s guide to surviving a Korean drinking session“, CNN, 2012-05-25

Liquor“, Korea Tourism Organization

Cho Surng-gie, “Why do Koreans drink and how much“, Koreana

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