If you’ve been in Korea for more than a day chances are someone – a new friend, a colleague, some random old dude on the street – has invited you drinking. Love it or loathe it, drinking is a big part of life in the Land of Morning Calm. It can be a great way to make new friends or strengthen established relationships, but it can also be a bewildering experience.
How to make sense of it all? Read on.
As you might expect from a country with a strong drinking culture, there are a wide variety of drinks on offer in Korea with which to slake your thirst and get your head spinning – beer, traditional rice wines like makkoli and dongdongju, fruity bokbunja (think sangria), and crazy potations distilled from mushrooms, ginseng, and more. These are all well and good and they certainly have their partisans, but their popularity is a mere fraction of that accorded to Korea’s King of Drinks, Korean soju.
Soju is Korea’s national pastime and has no doubt been responsible for many a business deal, bill passage, and conception.
That a 300mL bottle goes for 1,000 – 3,000 won (a couple of bucks) in every convenience store, supermarket, and restaurant in the country should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the stuff. The taste is like an unholy union between piss poor vodka and industrial strength cleaner. In fact, I keep a bottle on hand to scrub down the toughest stains in my kitchen and bathroom. Seriously. Slapping each bottle with a label that cribs from Dante – “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Sip From Here” – would be an honest policy, but I can’t imagine it doing much for sales.
Although the history is debated, most experts believe soju was brought to the Korean Peninsula with the Mongol invasions of the 14th-century and was originally based on a Persian method of distillation known as “arak”. Traditionally, Korean soju was made from rice but in the wake of the Korean War rice was scarce and the government outlawed the practice forcing distilleries to use potatoes, yams, and tapioca instead.
Today I’d be willing to bet that these distillaries simply mix water with ethanol and call it a day. The mass produced stuff is a sweet, sickly chemical swill with an average 20% ABV. It is generally served neat in 50mL glasses.
Lest I be reminded that the blogger with nothing nice to say should blog nothing at all (that or write for Gawker) I’ll offer this compliment: Korean soju has the salutary ability to make whatever you chase it with taste like Dom Perignon by comparison.
So, yeah. Not a fan. But you know what? I still drink it from time to time. Sure it’s like having vomit go the wrong way down my throat, but there’s a rationale behind this insanity.
I am assuming, gentle reader, that you want your visit/stay in Korea to be more than an extension of your [enter home country here] experience and as such you’ll be going out with Korean friends and colleagues, patronizing establishments that cater to a Korean clientele, and otherwise immersing yourself in the culture.
Know this then: drinking Korean soju in Korea nearly requires an advanced degree to do correctly. Okay, that’s an exaggeration – but not by much.
Drinking etiquette, like so many things in Korea, is governed by a complex set of Confucian social codes. If your knowledge of Confucianism is limited to the late Chris Farley’s farcical impersonations – “Confucius say: run behind car, get exhausted.” — here’s a brief summary.
Essentially, Confucianism seeks to promote virtuous governance and moral living, places the group before the individual, and views society through a prism of Five Bonds:
Allowing for necessarily vast generalizations, it is possible to see Confucianism as the determining factor in the differences between East Asian thought and culture, and the Aristotelian model that dominates much of thought and culture throughout the West.
It has been said that Korea is the most Confucian country in the world. What does that mean for you, fair expatriate?
Well, try to conceive of Korean society as a ladder and you’re on the bottom rung. Milling about with you there on the lowest level are friends and colleagues of equal age and social rank, a couple of rungs up are folks older than you (could be by as little as a year), and up near the top are the elderly, authority figures (teachers, doctors, etc), and the leadership of your school or company.
Everything you do – from the language that you use to taking a sip of beer – is influenced by this social hierarchy.
You’ve had a brutal day at school and a colleague informs you – at the last minute, of course! — that everyone is going out to dinner after work for some bonding and relaxation.
When you arrive at the restaurant you’re given a seat on the floor at the main table. Everyone is chatting and laughing; the food is excellent; the beer and soju are flowing like, well, beer and soju – you’re having a wonderful time.
In this situation (and, trust me, you’ll find yourself in this situation) there is about a 100% chance that your boss/principal will want to share a drink with you. Here’s how to wow her and (who knows?) maybe earn yourself a raise.
Accept the glass with both hands. Generally, the person of higher age/social rank will be the first to offer a drink before someone of lower rank reciprocates the favor. When you are offered a drink take the glass in your left palm and support it with your right hand. Bow your head slightly while the drink is poured. If you really want to knock some socks off, rise slightly to your knees when accepting the glass, while the drink is poured, and while consuming it.
Avert your eyes. Keep the glass in both hands and turn your head so that your face is in profile to your superior while drinking.
One shot. You’ll hear Korean people hollering “One shot!” or “konbae!” wherever soju is being spilled. At least on your first shot you’ll want to steel yourself and drain the glass in a single gulp. In this situation it isn’t hip to sip.
Pour, baby, pour. After receiving a drink from your superior it is customary to repay the favor – typically with the same glass from which you just imbibed. Sorry, mysophobes. When you pour a drink for your superior hold the bottle in both hands and fill the glass clean to the top.
Keep it coming. An empty soju glass is a sad thing indeed at a Korean table, so keep an eye on the folks around you. If you see an empty glass offer to refill it. Just make sure the empty glass doesn’t belong to you. It’s considered rude to refill your own glass.
The ties that bind. After you’ve established a rapport with your superior – this could take a few weeks or only a few bottles of Korean soju – offer him or her an empty glass and fill it up. This shows a degree of intimacy and respect.
Teetotally rocking the boat. What if you don’t consume alcohol? Unless you abstain for strict medical or religious reasons I’d strongly suggest forcing down at least a single glass of soju. I’m not much of a drinker. When I’m out with work colleagues, though, I’ll suffer my obligatory glass. There’s a Korean proverb that asks, “How can you know a man if you’ve never been drunk with him?” Drinking is the foremost means of social bonding in Korea and playing along – even if you (quite reasonably) dislike the stuff – is greatly appreciated.
Praying to the porcelain god. On the other hand, if you’re no stranger to being in your cups Korea will afford you many an opportunity to make vaguely recalled memories at the expense of your liver and dignity. Koreans are an intense people in most everything they do and drinking is no exception. Most drinking is undertaken here with the purpose of getting good and smashed. Naturally, exercise due discretion.
Among friends. Drinking with people your own age or with whom you are very familiar is a less complicated affair. You’ll still want to make sure no glass remains empty too long, and you’ll want to refrain from pouring your own drink. When pouring for a friend you’ll be fine just using your right hand.
Piece of cake, right? And just think: you’ll get to navigate this labyrinth of confusing social mores whilst your sobriety is mercilessly pounded into oblivion.
Honestly, though, you needn’t worry.
In my experience, Korean folk are nothing if not gracious and you won’t be expected to drink soju like a Korean – at least not at first. But put even a few of these tips into practice and I guarantee you’ll be the talk of the board room/teacher’s lounge next day.
Assuming, of course, anyone remembers anything of the night before.
Did this post quench your desire for information and entertainment? Take one down and pass it around with one of the neat-o icons below. Konbae!
Paul is a writer and teacher currently living near Seoul, Korea. Originally from Kansas City he misses good beer, football, and his family -- although not necessarily in that order.