Korea has rightly gained a reputation for being a drinking culture, but I wouldn’t call it a country of drunks. There are no open container laws in Korea as there are in the west because Koreans just don’t drink in random areas. Drinking is usually reserved for after work hours, on the weekends and in designated drinking areas.
Drinking can be a way to blow off steam, make friendships, close business deals or celebrate a major moment. Like everything else in Korea, drinking like a Korean involves following some rules. You can break these social rules, but you will just be seen as eccentric, foreign or possibly even rude. Here is a list of the most popular drinks in Korea and social rules to follow when drinking:
Kimchi is to Korean food what soju is to Korean drink. If you haven’t had soju or a shot offered to you in the first month of your stay in Korea, then you aren’t getting out enough. Koreans love their sweeter, cheaper (about $1 per bottle) version of vodka anytime after work or on the weekends. You will see soju while hiking, at dinner, at the corner market or at most any business or social event. Soju is distilled from rice and other grains and contains sugar. It is clear, smooth and extremely cheap. During the Mongol occupation in the 1300s, Koreans learned how to distill this type of alcohol and have since made it their own. They sell about 4 billion bottles a year, and even have it in a container that resembles a child’s juice box.
On beer in Korea, there is good news and bad news. The good news is Korean beer seems to be made especially for Korean food as the two go perfectly together. The bad news is that this match prohibits variety in the types of beers available. Koreans drink beer that taste much like the light, domestic American beers. They taste absolutely lovely with a spicy stew or with Korean barbeque, but if you are looking for that perfect stout or microbrewed pilsner, Korea isn’t your place. However, most of the 24 hour convenient stores offer a wide variety of domestic and imported beer.
No one imports more whiskey in Asia than Korea, and only one country imports more cognac. Liquor is a rich man’s drink in Korea as it is very rare to find bars selling it by the shot. As with most things in Korea, you are either all in or you are out. At bars you have to buy the whole bottle or settle for a much cheaper bottle of soju or glass of beer. You can find almost any liquor you want in grocery stores, but don’t expect to find ingredients for margaritas or other favorite foreign cocktails.
Korea is quickly becoming knowledgeable about wines, but it is still a work in progress. Small towns have never heard of the stuff, but in the bigger cities most convenient stores carry a decent bottle of wine. You can also find all kinds of Korean wines made from rice, fruit, flowers and bamboo. Essentially, the taste and affect to the drinker resembles that of moonshine.
Bar and club streets in big cities can resemble a mirthful war zone. People are laughing, singing, dancing, staggering, passing out, puking, fighting or looking shell-shocked in the bright lights of the bars. Don’t worry. You can make it through the chaos unscathed. Going out late into the night in Korea can be quite safe. You can also make it a little shady.
Korea offers late night activity for almost any kind of night owl. Here are some options.
Bars or Hofs
Big cities offer a variety of bars. There are many bars that resemble beer joints back home. Not so ironically, this is where you will run into most foreigners. Beer signs and bottles lined along the walls, drink specials and dark lighting and décor make westerners feel right at home. Generally, these places demand you eat something while you drink which can be very strange for westerners use to just going for a beer. So just be ready for a pushy owner to insist you buy food. Don’t resist, you might end up trying some unique Korean food like chicken butt (a recent experience for me, anyway).
You can find western or Korean nightclubs in big cities around Korea. Be prepared for a dress code and some interesting entertainment. This can mean anything from scantily clad women to lip syncing bands. Though these have a poor reputation among foreigners, you can still find yourself having a ball meeting, dancing and drinking with young Korean partiers.
Essentially this is a room where you can drink cheap soju and beer with only those you came with. Again be expected to by some food with you drinks.
Most singing rooms offer beer and soju for those who plan on singing toward drunkenness. This can be a very entertaining night out in a very comfortable setting. Singing rooms have wonderful couches, large table and interesting lighting. If you don’t mind listening to your friends belt out their favorite tunes, this can be a fun and exclusive night out.
Drinking with Koreans can also be lots of fun. They will teach you all the drinking rules, customs and even some very fun drinking games. The point of the evening is to get each other drunk and be respectful while doing it. These social rules might sound unnecessary to foreigners, but it is one of the more charming parts of Korean culture.
If your glass is empty, chances are a Korean at your table knows. It is customary for Koreans to never fill their own glasses, and it is very respectful to fill others. So if someone goes to fill your glass, let them, but be sure to hold your glass with two hands out of respect. Hold with one hand and touch your wrist or the bottom of the glass with your other hand tilting the glass toward your pourer. Insist on refilling other’s glasses and be sure to pour using two hands, especially if they are the elder.
Drinking what is served- If an elder Korean pours you a glass of alcohol then you are expected to drink it. They are throwing you a little bit of respect and you are expected to return it two-fold. After you have finished, be sure to offer to pour a drink for your elder. They can refuse though, they have earned the right. If you aren’t a drinker then maybe it is best to try to avoid these situations altogether. A person out at the bars not drinking just doesn’t make any sense at all. You would just confuse.