Drinking in Korea
Drinking Culture in Korea
Koreans, like their neighbours across the water in Japan, like a drink and a good time. The Japanese consume 70 litres of beer per person compared with 40 litres per capita in South Korea. Drinking has always enabled Koreans to cut loose from the rather stiff constraints of their hierarchical Confucian culture and a few drinks and a singalong are a big part of modern Korean social life.
History of Drinking in Korea
Alcohol was first introduced to Korea from China and ancient Korean texts tell of a King who uses alcohol to seduce and impregnate a female courtier. The historic drink of choice was 'soju' a rough rice wine with a fearsome kick, which was often distilled in Buddhist monasteries.
Historically a wide variety of medicinal alcohol was also produced, mainly at home, utilizing special herbs and plants. Recently traditional Korean alcohol is attempting something of a comeback among the health-conscious. During the Japanese period of occupation (1910-45) alcohol production was industrialized and beer and whisky introduced among the middle classes while the poor kept to the soju.
Soju is still widely available but the drinks of choice nowadays among many Koreans are beer (60% of Korea's alcoholic drinks market) and whisky or the two drunk together as 'poktanju' lit. 'bomb-liquour' or a boilermaker.
Drinking Etiquette in Korea
The South Korean version is a shot glass of whisky dropped into a glass of beer and then downed in one. The practice has become so widespread that TV commercials have been aired lately to warn people of the dangers of over-indulgence. A few years ago, the justice minister was fired for some 'inappropriate remarks' after a lunchtime session on the boilermakers.
The popularity of poktanju has seen South Korea become one of the largest importers of Scotch whisky, with more Ballantine's 17 Years downed than anywhere else in the world. Whisky can be incredibly expensive in bars but this doesn't seem to bother Korea's legions of salarymen. Perhaps an after-work whisky session lubricates their vocal cords for the obligatory visit to the singing rooms.
Maybe because of the exorbitant price, whisky has not caught on to the same extent with young Koreans. Most trendy urbanites like to be seen drinking imported bottled beers. These beers are the usual suspects, Budweiser, Becks, Heineken etc. Nowadays even young female Koreans enjoy a 'bud' while puffing on a Marlboro (female smoking was unheard of until recently and is still frowned upon my many Koreans despite the rapid increase of female smokers). Draught beer brewed in Korea is cheap and stands up well to foreign brands.
The two main domestic breweries are Hite (with backing from Carlsberg) and OB (Oriental Brewery), though foreign brands such as Budweiser and Miller are forcing their way into the market. Hite began life as Chosun Breweries producing Sapporo beer during the Japanese occupation and later Crown beer after the war. Most beer is drunk in Hofs (pronounced 'Hopu') and is usually ordered in large jugs with accompanying snacks. Visitors should be warned that in most places it is expected that customers order food to accompany their drinks although foreigners can usually get away with it. However, some places, especially in tourist hot-spots, will not serve beer without food.
Wine is also beginning to take off especially in the capital and the other major cities. Korea has its own domestic vineyards that produce for the large Catholic Church and fine imported wines can be found at Kenneth Kim's wine tasting evenings every Saturday at Beaver's Wings bar near Hapjung Station in Seoul.
Where To Drink in Seoul
In Seoul, Itaewon remains one of the main drinking districts. The close proximity of the US army base and 'Hooker Hill' guarantees a wild night out in the area's many foreigner-friendly pubs and clubs. Other places to head for are Gangnam, south of the Han River, and Sinchon-dong near Seoul's main universities. In Busan, Seomyeon or Nampodong are the main entertainment areas or head out to the beach at Haeundae.
A night out with Koreans is always interesting, usually raucous and often vague. Your glass with never be empty and your arm will ache from constantly clinking other peoples' glasses and crying 'Konbae!' Before you know it you will have made new friends and be croaking in the singing rooms quicker than you can say 'Hey Jude'.