Alcohol is the ultimate social lubricant in Korea.
When you're out at night, you'll always hear the pleasant din of clinking glasses and shouts of "geonbae" (bottoms up!) or "wihayeo" (cheers!) in the background. Sharing a drink is all about bonding, whether you're among friends or coworkers.
Of course, there are some serious issues with alcohol overconsumption in South Korea, and as with other mental health issues, alcoholism is all too often ignored. But despite that, when it comes to Korea's drinking culture and the way that it captures Korean people's love of a good time, there's still a lot to love.
When Hannah moved to Korea, she barely drank. (Believe it or not, she'd never had a single drink until she turned 21!) So her first year in Seoul was the equivalent of most people's freshman year of college, with lots of drinking games, late nights and drunk dials to her friends back in the U.S. Luckily, this was never done on an empty stomach, since food is a mandatory accompaniment to booze in Korean pubs.
Here's our rundown of beloved alcoholic drinks in Korea and the places they hold in our hearts (and on our table):
Soju is everywhere in Korea’s food culture. Crisp and neutral-tasting, with a slight hint of sweetness, soju pairs well with pretty much any type of Korean food.
Watch any Korean drama or film, and you’ll probably see shots of little green soju bottles strewn across tables. Interestingly, this quintessential Korean spirit is actually the product of foreign influences: In the 13th or 14th century, Mongol invaders brought over distillation techniques that they had picked up in Turkey.
Korean's love of soju is a big part of why the country often tops worldwide lists of the highest consumption of hard alcohol. These days, there are even some wildly popular flavored sojus (grapefruit is said to be especially good).
Originally a rustic drink, makgeolli is now one of Korea's most beloved alcoholic beverages. An unfiltered, mildly sweet and fizzy brew, makgeolli is sometimes called a "rice wine" or a "rice beer." Traditionally made with a fermentation starter called nuruk, it's really easy to drink -- but be careful, it can give you a terrible hangover!
Recently, we met home-brewer Alice Jun, who bottles under the name Hana Makgeolli. As you can see by this setup on her dining table, it's doable to make makgeolli at home, especially with a little trial and error. Hana Makgeolli is smooth, yet earthy, and wonderfully potent.
When you're walking down the street in Korea and you see a giant inflatable mug, you know you've stumbled on yet another beer "hof." These little beer joints are ubiquitous all over Korea.
People of all ages slake their thirst and enjoy eating anju, or drinking snacks, such as fried chicken, savory pancakes and tofu + kimchi. Like popular American beers, the standard Korean beers are based in the tradition of light, chuggable lagers.
At first glance, Korean beer pitchers look enormous. But it's kind of an optical illusion, since there's a large amount of air insulating the beer. And no drinking session is complete without little bar snacks -- the sweet, colorful ones taste exactly like Froot Loops!
And then there are the Korean beer ads. They're on a whole other level, often plastered on the walls of pubs or hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Look out for your favorite K-pop or drama stars -- even the daintiest of the yeonaein (celebs) can knock back a long, hearty chug!
These drinks are all a fitting complement to Korea's fantastic food, and sharing them (often in copious quantities) is a huge part of the bonding ritual around the table.