|Yeah, that sounds about right|
This stuff is... dear god, how to I describe it? It is omnipresent in Korea. It is the #1 best selling spirit in the world and Koreans consume approximately 95% of all soju sold. It's a clear liquor that tastes like weak vodka and most soju hangs out at about 20% alcohol, but it makes up for being a bit weak by being CHEAP AS FREE. Seriously, a bottle of soju costs less than a bottle of water (950 won for soju, 1,000 won for water, 950 won = $0.85).
Many a night has been ruined by the best, cheapest cocktail around: SojuVitaminWater. This stuff will give you a horrendous hangover and, in the worst cases, a bad case of the runs. Whenever Koreans go out for dinner there is almost ALWAYS a bottle of soju involved, if not two or twelve. It is a little difficult to be a connoisseur of soju since that's like calling yourself a connoisseur of screw-top wine. There is high end soju out there but I've never had the pleasure. The type I always buy is Jinro Fresh. It's an easier one to mix and mask and is a little sweeter, I've found.
|Jinro Fresh... how many bad ideas it has caused....|
|Don't be fooled by how much it looks like paint|
If you are looking for something a little more refined while still super cheap Makgeolli is a good way to go. This is Korean rice wine and when you're buying it it always looks gross. All of the rice settles to the bottom of the bottle, creating a very thick puck of white nastyness that you need to shake up. Once it's properly mixed, however, this stuff tastes pretty awesome. It's carbonated and sweet but I really can't think of anything to compare the taste to. It's not sweet like a soda and it doesn't really have much of an aftertaste.
This stuff, however, you can be a connoisseur of. There are many makgeolli bars around Seoul that sell upscale brands and offer tastings. My favorite makgeolli bar is H (but it's the Korea H, so "ㅎ") in Haebongcheong (Noksapyeoung Station, exit 2, take the first left, walk up the hill, it will be on your left). H offers a wide selection of makgeolli as well as some pretty good pajeong (Korean savory meat pancake). I love bringing people from outside of Korea here for their first taste of the sweet stuff.
As far as what to buy on your typical "sitting outside the convenience store for hours" night I can only say two things: green bottle, flat bottom. I don't know the name of it because I've never needed to know the name of it. Avoid convenience store makgeolli sold in clear bottles, these are normally my least favorite ones.
|I'm *pretty* sure this is the one I like, only one way to be sure!|
Here comes the most unfortunate thing about Korean drinking: their beer is HORRIBLE. They drink almost exclusively light ales and they are just... god awful. The three most popular brands are Cass, Hite, and Max. Those are in order from best to worst. Cass is horrible, but it is the lesser of the three evils, it tastes like watery Budweiser. Hite has a very distinct, very unsettling "chewing on tinfoil" after taste. Max tastes like you just picked up leftover mash from the Cass brewing process and stuck it in your mouth. There's one more brand called OB but I drank this once and decided I never wanted to drink it again, it must be terrible because I seem to have erased any real memory of it. The only Korean beer I will drink without grimacing is Hite: Dry Finish. It's not great, but it's ok and it's everywhere.
|The horsemen of the beerpocalypse|
Don't fret, my friends, you can find decent beer in Korea, you just need to be willing to shell out some cash for it. The average pint of Korean beer when you're out on the town will cost around 3,000 won ($2.64), for imports or the few microbrews that are around you're normally looking at 8,000 to 12,000 won ($7-$11). So, yeah, in a country where everything is cheap it really hurts to pay that much more for quality beer.
KOREAN DRINKING ETIQUETTE
There are a lot of rules when it comes to drinking here. It seems like they make up for the fact that you can drink ANYWHERE (seriously, the sidewalk and a children's playground are both fair game once the Sun is down) by having a lot of rules for how you should drink. Soju is served in shot glasses (but it sipped, not pounded), makgeolli is served in bowls, and beer is served in mini pint glasses (because most of the time you are pouring from a pitcher or bottle). Here are the basics of drinking etiquette:
- Never let your neighbors sit with empty glasses, always fill their glass for them
- Never fill your own glass
- When someone is filling your glass always pick it up off the table
- When pouring always have the label of the bottle facing your palm
- When toasting (or, as Koreans say, "gombay"), always toast lower than people who are older than you or of a higher rank than you in your workplace
- When pouring or receiving always do so with you right hand with your left hand in one of four positions: on the glass, on your wrist, on your lower arm, or on your chest. On the glass and on your chest are the two that show the highest respect.
- If you are drinking with your boss or an elder always turn away from them when you drink, it's a sign of respect.
- NEVER refuse a drink, it is very insulting. If you don't want to drink just take one sip and leave your glass full beside you.
You get the hang of these rules a lot faster than you can imagine. I even accidentally do all of these when I'm drinking with just westerners and I can imagine I am going to look pretty silly when I go back to the States. Koreans are really pleased when a westerner knows how to drink properly with them.
WHEN IT, INEVITABLY, FALLS APART
As I have mentioned before, Koreans have a bad habit of getting stupid drunk. This is actually not that much of an issue because, on the whole, Koreans are very happy, subdued drunks. I have never heard drunk Koreans making a ton of noise late at night, never seen a Korean making a big scene, and I've only seen one fight and that was mostly just two friends playing around. Koreans are, however, very sleepy drunks.
|This and more on a typical Tuesday night|
Most cities have recognized this fact and businesses have established themselves accordingly. Love motels and jimjilbangs are available on almost every street. Love motels are cheap hotels that cater to young adults who want to have sex but still live with their parents and to drunk businessmen who need a comfortable bed to sleep it off in. They're decently cheap and normally pretty clean and come fully stocked with every toiletry you could need to make yourself look presentable for that big meeting the next morning. Jimjilbangs are Korean style bath houses that have saunas where you can sweat out all those horrible toxins (just make sure you keep hydrated) and sleeping rooms. These are extremely cheap but men, be warned or enticed, the less reputable jimjilbangs can serve as locations for men to go and have anonymous homosexual encounters, so watch your corn hole. I have never heard of these activities occurring on the women's side (the sexes are almost entirely segregated in most areas).
There you have it, a rough guide to getting plastered in Korea. I'm going to start reviewing my favorite places to go drinking soon, but that's for another day.