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Drinking Culture in Korea

   Alcohol was first introduced to Korea from China and ancient Korean texts tell of a King who uses alcohol to seduce and impregnate a female courtier. The historic drink of choice was ‘soju’ a rough rice wine with a fearsome kick, which was often distilled in Buddhist monasteries. Historically a wide variety of medicinal alcohol was also produced, mainly at home, utilizing special herbs and plants. Recently traditional Korean alcohol is attempting something of a comeback among the health-conscious. During the Japanese period of occupation (1910-45) alcohol production was industrialized and beer and whisky introduced among the middle classes while the poor kept to the soju.

   Alcohol has always been important for Koreans dating all the way back to the Confucian era. Then, Koreans drink only during special events and holidays, like New Year’s Eve, showing respect to elders and ancestors. Now, Koreans drink anytime they want in order to have fun and to forge a stronger friendship with peers. In modern times, drinking is one way of getting to know a person not only in interpersonal social relationships but in work relationships as well. It is a huge compliment to be invited to drink with an elder or superior co-worker. It is thus the easiest way of building relationships and alleviating stress. Nowadays, drinking among teenagers and young adults is growing.

   Legal minimum age for drinking and purchasing alcohol in Korea is 19 years old. Ministry of Food and Drug Safety conducted a survey on 2,000 people who consumed alcohol at least once, aged 15 and above between Oct. 20 and Nov. 6, 2017. Nearly 67% of South Koreans in their 30s consume alcohol above the recommended level of alcohol consumption of the World Health Organization. Women consumes daily an average of 4.7 shots for soju and 4.1 glasses for beer. Men, on the other hand, has an average below the recommended level of less than 8.8 shots of soju. Respondents’ average alcohol consumption per day were 6.1 shots of soju (50ml each), 4.8 glasses of beer (200ml), and 2.9 glasses of rice wine (200ml). The tally was 4.5 shots of whiskey (30ml).

   Koreans do not just drink but they have basic etiquette that must be followed. Here are basic rules in drinking. First, pour and receive drinks with both hands. Second, turn to the side when drinking. Third, pour drink for others. Don’t pour drinks for yourself. The most senior person will take care of it. Fourth, when the other person’s glass is empty, always fill it up especially if he/she is older or higher in status than you. Fifth, never fill the glass if it is partially filled. Sixth, hold the glass up with two hands to be filled when someone empties his glass and passes it to you. Return the other person’s glass promptly. To show trust and respect, a Korean of higher rank will drink and then fill his glass again and pass it to you. You should drink it but if you’ve already said that you are not drinking, you should make it so that your refusal does not offend or hurt the other person’s feelings. Lastly, try to take the first drink with everyone, together.

   To anyone who has been to South Korea, this is no surprise. It is a huge part of its corporate culture and combines different Confucian norms. South Koreans see it as the easiest way of alleviating stress and building relationships. For business workers, drinking is non-negotiable. Drinks after work strengthen relationships with colleagues, and an invitation to drink with an office superior is a great compliment that should not be turned down. The drinking etiquette, which requires that a person’s cup never be left empty, increases the pressure to drink. Constant topping up makes binge drinking the norm, while refusing drinks is seen as rejecting generosity or denying someone who is trying to help you have a good time. Drinking among teenagers and young adults is also growing. The same workplace drinking etiquette applies to university students.

   Despite a legal minimum age of 19 for the sale of alcohol, identification checks are uncommon at restaurants. Youth grasp every opportunity to have a good time – many students drink 5 nights a week. Alcohol is absurdly cheap in South Korea. Soju is by far the most popular beverage. The distinctively green 375ml bottle contains six standard drinks and costs about 3000 won (AUD$3.50) at restaurants and bars. Soju and a variety of beers are available at almost every supermarket, convenience store, restaurant and street vendor, and even in hospitals. The country is awash with alcohol. Marketing also plays a huge role, with popular celebrities and athletes featuring heavily in commercials for alcohol. Soju bottle labels have photos of young actors and pop artists, encouraging their teenage fan bases to purchase their star-endorsed beverage. Television dramas also normalise heavy drinking with humorous scenes of businessmen returning home completely inebriated and romantic moments of people falling in love over drinks at the local street-food shop.

   In Korea, the major crop has historically been rice, and thus most Korean traditional alcoholic beverages are rice wines, made from both glutinous rice and non-glutinous rice. These are fermented with the aid of yeast and nuruk, a wheat-based source of the enzyme amylase. Additionally, Koreans often use fruits, flowers, herbs, and other ingredients to flavor these beverages, to a much greater extent than Chinese wines.

There are six main types of Korean alcoholic beverages.

First, the yakju. “Yakju” literally “medicinal alcohol” is a refined rice wine made from steamed rice that has gone through several fermentation stages. It is also called myeongyakju or beopju and is distinguished from takju by its relative clarity.

Second, the cheongju which literally means “clear wine” or “clear liquor”. It is a clear rice wine similar to Japanese sake.

Third, the soju is the most Korean liquor. Koreans call soju “a friend of life” and “common people’s drink”. It is made from grains such as rice, barley and wheat, or from starches such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and tapioca. Soju is often compared to vodka, but it has a sweet taste due to the added sugar. The drink is usually served neat and in a shot glass, and it should be drunk as a shot or sipped on. It is smooth and clean in taste, which makes it easy to pair with a variety of Korean dishes.

Fourth, makgeolli is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Korea. It is the oldest traditional Korean rice wine, with a 6 – 7% alcohol content. It is fermented naturally and unfiltered which gives it its milky white color and makes it chalky at the bottom. The beverage is thick but smooth. It tastes sweet with a slight tang and leaves a cool aftertaste.

Fifth, the fruit wine. Fruit wines are made from rice wine that is mixed with grapes. The most popular fruit wines are made from maesil plums (such wine called maesil ju, mae hwa su, mae chui soon, or Seol Joong Mae), bokbunja (Korean black raspberries, Rubus occidentalis L., 15% alcohol), Chinese quinces, cherries, pine fruits, and pomegranates. A wine tunnel south of Daegu produces a slightly tart wine made from persimmons.

Lastly, the flower wines. There are a number of Korean traditional wines produced from flowers. These include wines made from chrysanthemums, called gukhwaju, acacia flowers, maesil blossoms, peach blossoms, honeysuckle, wild roses, and sweet briar petals and berries. Dugyeonju is a wine made from Azalea petals, produced in Chungcheong Province. It is sweet, viscous, and light yellowish brown in color, and contains about 21% alcohol.

   Similar to South Korea, beer is everywhere in Cambodia, even the most remote village has one. Angkor, the national beer, costs around US$2 to US$3 for a 660mL bottle in most restaurants and bars. Draught Angkor is also available in the main tourist centres. Other popular local brands include Cambodia Beer and Crown Lager. Beerlao from Laos is also one of the cheapest ales available. Tiger Beer is also produced in the country and is one of the most popular beer. Craft beer, on the other hand, is becoming more popular in Phnom Penh today and has set up a dozen microbreweries in the city. Although Cambodia is also oozing with beer, refrigeration has been on shortage in the countryside so one must say, “Som teuk koh” or “Ice, please”.

   Therefore, deeply embedded in Korea’s culture is the drinking. In fact, the country is known for this. A certain website penned them as, “The World’s Booziest Country.” It is not possible to leave Korea without drinking even a sip of their soju.



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