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8 Apr 2023
By Irene Yu

NextImg:Soju swirls and hangover soup — Korean drinking traditions, explained

My Korean parents never drink. On occasion, during his birthday party perhaps, my dad will drink one beer and his face will immediately turn beet red. My mother can barely stand the smell—one whiff and she'll complain of an oncoming headache. So it's a mystery to them how I, their first-born daughter, came to be the best drinker of all time.

This is hubris, of course, but hubris is what drives the Korean drinking experience. It's common to be asked, "How many bottles of soju can you drink?" as a measure of sizing up someone's abilities. Drinking is not only a challenge in Korean society, but a way of life—you learn how to accept a drink from your elders, drink socially with your friends, commiserate over drinks with coworkers, meet for drinks with clients to land big deals, and pour a glass to honor your ancestors.

As an American, I learned to drink at college parties, and then at bars all around New York City. But as a Korean (because I am both), I learned to drink by watching my uncles, and then through Korean dramas, and eventually by drinking with my cousins and friends in Korea. My experience, and the associated hubris, comes from two things: I never get the Asian glow, and I have a high tolerance. 

Since then, I've become something of a "Korean drinking trainer" when it comes to teaching the distinctly Korean approach to drinking—and now I'm here to help you, too.

I should caveat, as my doctor would implore me: Please drink responsibly.

The two most common types of alcohol in Korea—or at a Korean restaurant serving Korean drinks—are soju and beer. There are only a handful of brands for each alcohol type, which makes them easy to remember and easy to order.

Soju most often comes in iconic green bottles branded Chamisul or Chum Churum, and more recently also in a light blue bottle called Jinro. Today's soju is lower proof than it was in past decades (as a way of keeping prices cheap). When modern soju was first introduced in 1965, it it was typically 35% alcohol by volume, but these days bottles will typically range between 12 to 20  % ABV, never exceeding 24%. Historically speaking, Hite and Cass have been the most common Korean beers, with Kloud and Terra being the popular newcomers on the scene. Most Korean beers are light, pale lagers, made for easy drinking and pairing with soju.

Less common than beer and soju, makgeolli (or Korean rice wine) is a very traditional style of alcohol that comes with its own customs and pairings. While you can find makgeolli sold in bottles, it's often listed as a "house" makgeolli. The milky white liquor is decanted into a copper kettle, made to be poured into copper rice bowls, as a nod to its history as a farmer's alcohol commonly brewed at home with rice.

When drinking with a friend or two, I like to start with one bottle of soju and one or two large 500-milliliter bottles of beer. The soju will be served with shot glasses, while the beer is often served with small beer glasses. These beer glasses are key for making "somaek," or soju mixed with maekju (Korean for "beer").

Consecutive rounds can be ordered—the amount in each bottle of soju is half that of standard wine bottles, around 375 milliliters, and the alcohol percentage is relatively low. Some Korean pochas (or vendors) will even encourage you to self-serve from refrigerators located in the dining room to save the staff from constantly running back and forth.

The eldest, or the person paying for dinner, will open the bottle of soju. It's common (and fun!) to shake or twirl the bottle to create a whirlpool; This practice is a holdover from when soju bottles came corked, and the swirling would separate any falling cork material from the liquid. The person serving will then pour for the table one at a time, and once everyone else is served they'll have someone else pour their glass for them.

Regardless of whether you're drinking soju, beer, or makgeolli, it's considered impolite to refuse the first drink offered to you, or any drink offered by someone older than you. This means there tends to be a lot of age comparison conversation during any drinking gathering. From then on, it's respectful to keep everyone else's glasses filled, but to never pour your own drink.

One of the best parts of drinking in Korea (or at your favorite Korean restaurant) is all the food you can pair your drinks with. In America, it's common to see drink minimums at bars or clubs, but in Korea it's often the reverse; alcohol is so cheap that food must be ordered to sit at a table.

While pretty much any food can be paired with alcohol, there are some classically delicious Korean pairings to seek out. Grilled pork belly, or samgyupsal, is a must-have with shots of cold soju, while fried chicken and beer go hand in hand (a combo dubbed "chimaek"). On a rainy day, Koreans love to seek out a glass of makgeolli with jeon, a fried Korean pancake, because the pitter patter of the rain recalls the soft sizzle of hot oil frying.

A typical night out in Korea entails several rounds, called "cha." For the first round, or 1-cha, we like to lay down a hearty dinner of Korean barbecue and kick the night off with somaek. Our 2-cha, or second round, might be spent at a cocktail bar for an experience that's a bit fancier and boozier. Once we're feeling good, our 3-cha sometimes happens at a karaoke bar—where there will be more drinks—before we head over to a pojangmacha (Korean pub) for 4-cha. There, we'll order a ton of anju (drinking snacks), like spicy rice cakes or clam soup before calling it a night.

Even the morning-after-drinking care has its own unique culture in Korea. Hangovers are traditionally treated with haejangguk, or hangover soup, which is an entire category of soup in the Korean lexicon. They range from filling beef broth simmered with dried napa cabbage and vegetables, to ox blood soup (seonjiguk), blood sausage soup (soondaeguk), and even just a cup of instant ramyun from the convenience store. While you're fueling up, you can also look for hangover drinks. This trend is still relatively new in Korea, complete with bottles, capsules, and jellies that contain a mix of vitamins and traditional medicinal ingredients purported to help alleviate your alcohol-induced headaches and queasiness.

While the many rules and etiquette above may seem daunting for a first-timer, Korean drinking serves a gateway to Korean culture as a whole. It's a way to enjoy the country's delicious food, make fast friends, and experience more in one night than you might in a week.