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A Sip of Soju: a how to for Drinking in Korea

by

DRINKING IN KOREA

a bottle of soju

True Dew 참 이슬

Soju (rice wine) has long been the Korean drink of choice (and many foreigners find it unpalatable), but these days there is a trend toward drinking beer, western liquors and even wine (with honorable mention going to a resurgence of makgeolli), especially among the younger generation.

Koreans generally consider drinking to be integral to most interactions, be it a department dinner or a causal meeting, a holiday, weekend, wedding or funeral, nights out with friends, entertaining clients, celebrating special occasions, or just to forget the pressures of life in Seoul.

 

The basics: from a simple sip to simply sick

 

Korean Hospitality & Drinking Etiquette

Soju (rice wine) has long been the Korean drink of choice (and many foreigners find it unpalatable), but these days there is a trend toward drinking beer, western liquors and even wine, especially among young people. There are also a number of other traditional Korean liquors and wines distilled from everything from persimmons to ginseng that are often a pleasure to sample.

Koreans generally consider drinking to be integral to most interactions, be it a department dinner or a causal meeting, a holiday, weekend, wedding or funeral, nights out with friends, entertaining clients, celebrating special occasions, or just to forget the pressures of life in Seoul. Most importantly, Koreans believe that alcohol can bridge cultural gaps, build trust and deepen relationships.

 

1-cha, 2-cha, 3-cha, drop!
The Stages of Korean drinking

Koreans rarely drink at home, except with family and so when drinking with friends or coworkers, they must go out. Socializing with Korean businessmen after hours usually means a series of drinking rounds and changing venues. The first round, or 1-cha in Korean, usually involves a meal and some soju. 2-cha, or second stage, often entails a change to whiskey and beer. And in 3-cha almost anything goes – and it’s likely that you won’t remember anyway. Luckily, there is often a chance to bow out between stages and especially between the 2nd and 3rd stages. Otherwise you might have trouble waking up the next morning to attend an important business meeting or catch a flight.

Note: Most Koreans believe that it is impolite to drink alcohol straight from a bottle. Soju bottles, which are about the size of a 12 oz. beer bottle, are poured into small shot glasses with many specific mannerisms. And until recently, most beer bottles in Korea were much larger in size and rather awkward to drink out of.

 

‘One Shot’ and ‘Want-shot’

bottoms_up

나발불다 [na-bal-bul-da] swig it; suck it down; brown bag it

“Bottom’s up” is the style most Koreans seem to prefer. When a Korean calls out ‘one-shot’, everyone is expected to empty their glasses, which are thankfully smallish in size compared to western beer or shot glasses. Recently, however, some have taken to selective hearing and choosing to drink only a smaller portion while giving the reply ‘wan-shot’ and drinking as much or as little as one wants.

There’s also the “won’t-take-no-for-an-answer” attitude possessed by many Koreans. The group mentality demands of us keep up with others for the sake of the group. As a foreigner it is often possible to excuse oneself from excessive drinking but it may be necessary to give some excuse for not participating to the fullest extent such as “I’m taking medication” (Koreans most easily understand if you are taking herbal medicine or “Han-yak”). I’ve found that medical excuses and religious ones work best.

 

Down to the Nitty Gritty

If you’re going to take the plunge and drink with a Korean crew, here’s how to live up to the traditional Korean drinking protocol:

  • Hold the bottle with both hands when pouring drinks Koreans, they put their palms under the bottle, while touching its label.
  • It is a rule of courtesy for juniors to pour liquor for their seniors while paying attention not to leave a senior’s glass empty.
  • The ceremonial passing of the glass, a routine in which each participant empties his glass, passes it to another person and then refills it. Koreans offer glasses of liquor to each other as a gesture of camaraderie.
  • When someone offers you an empty liquor glass, you are expected to hold it out and receive a fill-up, drink it empty, and in likewise fashion return it to the person who offered it to you. This drinking tradition helps promote close ties around the drinking table.
  • When a senior offers a junior a glass, the junior should receive it with two hands and drink with head turned aside, not facing the senior.
  • It is also the custom to cup the right sleeve with the left hand when pouring drink for a senior.

Many Koreans remain convinced that alcohol is an invaluable social lubricant allowing people to let down their guard and talk freely creating a closer bond between workers. So if you’re ready, join the team and you may become more welcome in the group but you’ll certainly more hung over.

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