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What You Need To Know About South Korea’s Drinking Culture

South Korea's drinking culture
PHOTO: (LEFT TO RIGHT) Getty Images/iStockphoto, Itaewon Class/JTBC

If you’ve been watching K-dramas for quite some time now, you may have noticed how much some of your favorite characters *love* drinking alcohol. When they have something to celebrate, a glass of beer (with a plate of piping hot fried chicken) is almost always present; when they're heartbroken, soju is the answer. And this is a reflection of South Korean culture. 

South Korea's drinking culture
Itaewon Class/JTBC
South Korea's drinking culture


South Korea and how drinking plays a role in work culture

If there's one thing you need to know about the work culture in South Korea, it's that employees have *long hours*. As a result, drinking after work is common—it's a way to relieve some of their stress. The entire team, or sometimes the company, has hoesik (work dinners), which everyone is expected to attend

South Korea's drinking culture
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo/MBC

In a video by Al Jazeera, an employee mentioned why hoesik is essential in their country. "Drinking is never the goal. It is to build bonds in business and with people. At work, we can't be so open but here, we can make good memories." South Koreans drink to feel more comfortable about sharing their stories and showing their personalities. One of the reasons why they don't mingle too much at work is because South Koreans are very particular when it comes to respecting their sunbaes (seniors). Once they leave the office, they can play games, sing at the top of their lungs, or laugh their heart out with everyone. But of course, certain etiquettes are still imposed during these social gatherings as a form of respect. 

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Common courtesy and how South Koreans view drinking

When a sunbae invites you to go out for a drink with the entire team, you should take it as a compliment more than a simple invite. When you’re offered a glass of soju, it’s a sign that they want to get to know you better. Turning down an invitation might be considered rude. People usually only say no when they have to drive home that night; or if it's against their religion; or if they have a serious medical condition. 

Compared to other countries, purchasing alcohol there is more accessible; and according to an article on Medium, their laws are more lenient. Rather than banning the activity, it’s even encouraged.

Where and what to drink, plus what food to pair your drinks with

Pre-pandemic, restaurants, pubs, clubs, noraebangs (karaoke), and pojangmachas (red tents found along the street) are filled to the brim with customers. They would also drink by the beach, near the Han River, at a park, or outside a convenience store (just like in K-dramas!). What you would often see them drinking is soju, maekju (beer), or makgeolli (a milky alcoholic drink made from fermented rice).

YouTube/Erwan Heussaf

To prevent themselves from drinking way too hard, South Koreans would munch on anju, or food that is usually paired with alcoholic drinks. This can be in the form of gopchang (intestines), grilled seafood, raw octopus, samgyupsal (grilled meat), peanuts, soondae (blood sausages), or fried chicken, to name a few. Just like what we are used to—when there is alcohol, there should always be food.


YouTube/Kring Kim
YouTube/Eduardo Baptista

Things to keep in mind:

  1. Don't pour your own drink. Let someone else do it for you.
  2. It is always best to know who the sunbae is in the group. The senior should pour the first glass.
  3. The youngest should be the one to refill the glasses afterwards. When it comes to this, you should only pour when their glass is completely empty; when it’s only halfway done, it’s a sign that they want to take it easy.
  4. If you’re going to do the pouring, remember to hold the bottle with both hands. And when someone else is the one pouring, accept the drink by holding your glass with both of your hands, too.
  5. When you’re about to drink, remember to turn your body away from the sunbaes (unless you’re a senior yourself) and cover your mouth.
  6. Your first glass should be taken in one gulp, but the succeeding glasses can be taken in smaller amounts.
  7. Make sure that when you’re about to toast for a drink, your glass is lower than your seniors'. You can also hook arms with your workmates or friends as you both take a shot.
  8. Always remember your limit. You don’t want to be the talk of the town the next day for not controlling your alcohol consumption.
  9. Enjoy and dance (or sing) the night away!


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