Ever heard about the legendary drinking culture in South Korea? Here’s one girl’s guide to making the most out of Korea’s favorite past time.
I spent two wonderful years living and working abroad in Seoul, South Korea. When I arrived, I was surprised to learn how influential the drinking culture was. It was then I knew I’d fit right in.
Me at a Korean karaoke bar, Norebang (Nor-eh-bong,) drinking Soju and water. Photo by: Jae Jin Park
But seriously, drinking culture in Korea is no joke:
According to a 2014 study by Euromonitor, South Koreans drink 13.7 shots of liquor per week on average, which is the most in the world. Of 44 countries analyzed by Euromonitor, none comes anywhere close. The Russians, the second biggest in Euromonitor’s sample, down 6.3 shots per week, while Americans consume only 3.3.
So buckle in, because before you go out drinking in Korea, it’s helpful to learn about their most popular drinks. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered– you’ll be drinking the locals under the table in no time!
The Oldest Drink In Korea: Makgeolli
One of my favorite drinks in Korea is a rice wine called Makgeolli (Mokk-oli) which is a mixture of fermented rice grains, yeast, and boiled water. Because it’s unfiltered, the drink has a milky white color and some residual sediment at the bottom. It’s generally served cold in a teapot and poured into individual bowls.
Makgeolli is sweet, tangy, and carbonated – tasting similar to champagne! Makgeolli is also the oldest alcohol drink in Korea and today is most popular among young women (but good drink has no gender, so boys and gals, pour up!). It tastes best with a side of Korean pancakes which I also recommend you try! Yum!
Dessert Wine: Bokbunja Ju
Famous Korean singer and actor Lee Min Ho seductively endorses the popular beverage.
The next drink is a traditional Korean dessert wine called, Bokbunja Ju (bok-bun-ja-cha.) Made from fermented black raspberries and water, Koreans believe it is great for health and also acts as an aphrodisiac. So there’s that!
Korean Classic: Soju
The most widely consumed drink in Korea HAS to be Soju. In fact, the South Korean liquor accounts for 97% of the country’s spirits market. It’s a clear, distilled rice liquor with potency similar to vodka. Locals in Korea drink it straight up – no mixers needed. Many Koreans chase away the bite with beer. Drink this for a wild night out (and if you want to sample the world’s worst hangover)!
For Taking a Breather: Beer & Non-Alcoholic Beverages
If you’re the beer type, you’ll want to check out Hite, Cass, and OB Lager. They’ll remind you of Budweiser and typical pale lagers.
If you’re not a big drinker, this last non-alcoholic beverage is for you! I enjoy Citron Tea (or Yuja Cha), because it not only comes in handy as an herbal remedy during flu season, but it also has a sweet tea taste (I’m from the American South, so I can’t resist!) You can find this sweet tea sold in a jar at most Asian markets. Simply drop a tablespoon, or more, into a cup of hot water and stir. Mmmmm.
South Korean Drinking Etiquette
It’s important to note that in Seoul, Koreans drink socially and within social hierarchies.
If you’re working abroad in Korea, remember to respect elders! Pouring your own glass in a group is considered impolite–usually, the most senior person is responsible for pouring. Also, when offered, be sure to accept the pour holding your glass with two hands rather than holding your class with just one. This is the polite gesture for accepting anything given to you in Korea, whether it be drinks, trinkets or getting money back from a cashier.
Even if you’re not a drinker, try to accept the first drink poured for you; it’s considered a gaffe to reject the first drink when offered. And, if a senior person continually re-fills your glass, don’t worry, it’s out of friendship!
Traditionally, people in South Korea would drink to celebrate holidays and show respect for ancestors. Back then, it was an obligation. These days, it’s a great excuse to drink with your co-workers and have the tab picked up by the head honcho! So saddle up, have fun and drink lots of water!