Drinking Culture in Korea

Programs for this blog post

Arts + Sciences

Authored By:

Ramona W.

Jjan! Geonbae! Cheers! Before studying abroad I thought Americans drank a lot, but after witnessing the drinking culture in Seoul firsthand, I have to say that no one does it like Koreans. Honestly this is a sort of sensitive topic to blog about here; I’m not promoting drinking, partying, recklessness, or the ‘drinking agenda’, this is just an aspect of Korean culture I did not see coming.

Russia is the country known for their intense drinking habits; people there drink an average of 6.3 shots per week. Americans consume less than half of that, at around 3. Meanwhile Koreans, the culture known for its strict work ethic and discipline, tap out at a whopping 13.7 shots per week, more than doubling any other nation in the world. 

The reason Koreans consistently consume alcoholic beverages definitely has to do with the rigid work and school system. Students spend around 60 hours a week studying, and then graduate college only to enter a work force built upon that same mentality. Build up from immense pressure and stress leads people to find drinking as an outlet to relax and forget their troubles. Social drinking is not merely an individual’s lifestyle, it is a social norm reflecting Korean history and culture. Another primary motivator for adults is building business bonds. It is common for bosses to invite their coworkers to an after hours get together where drinks are shared, and you can never turn down an invitation from a boss or elder.

The liquor of choice is a beverage unique to Korea, and one that carries a national identity with every sip taken: soju. This clear, alcoholic drink made from rice, wheat, or potatoes has a neutral taste I would describe as a sweeter, and less aggressive vodka. Because of its ready availability and low price, soju accounts for 97% of the spirits market here. Most of my weekend nights here consist of a stop to the convenience store where you can ring up a bottle for around 1500 won ($1.27).

In American you drink with a relaxed mentality, but at my first drinking outing in Seoul I had to keep up my attention to keep track of the many Korean drinking customs. Before you even open the bottle of soju there is a specific technique of whipping it upside down to create a little tornado inside the bottle, mixing up the beverage. After it’s cracked open, you don’t pour your own drink. The youngest will pour shots for the older friends, and always with two hands. When you finally get to drink your shot, you turn your head away slightly and cover your mouth. I can only imagine how my Korean friends would react to the messy slurping of American jello shots.

The drinking experience in Korea is filled with adventure and delicious food. I never knew drinking games could be so entertaining; my knowledge of them before coming here stopped after simple beer pong. Koreans make the process of getting drunk so much more fun! Some games include: baskin robbins 31, 3-6-9, down the river, do-re-mi, bunny bunny, super mario, 007, and messy. I won’t go into detail describing each as the names alone sound chaotic. Even the bottle cap is made use of by being passed around in a circle trying to flick off the twist tie until someone breaks it and has to drink.

A typical night of Korean drinking ends only when the sun comes up. It may be due to the subway break from midnight to 6am, but I have a feeling even if transportation was running people would still stay out early to drink. During these hours of the night, a vibrant nightlife emerges full of more than just clubbing. Places like noraebang (karaoke), bowling, arcades, and eateries are always open to accommodate the crowds. There are countless variations of anju (drinking food) such as chimek (chicken and beer), samgyupsal and soju, or makgeolli (rice wine) and pajeon. And I wonder why I’ve gained weight abroad… 

Overall, the drinking experience in Korea has changed the way I think of a night out on the town. I’m looking forward to coming home and making my friends struggle through a round of baskin robbins 31 and staying up until the sunrises. I will forever cherish my memories here of cheerings drinks with my friends abroad and trying to keep up with the tolerance and endurance of the Koreans around me.