Korean Language Blog

Bourdain’s Survival Drinking in Korea: Customs, Expectations, and Beyond Soju Posted by on May 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

Late last month, Anthony Bourdain made headlines by opening the fifth season of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” with a trip to South Korea, a country whose social habits bind tightly with drinking and eating and eating and more drinking.  About Korea’s social life, Bourdain said, “Everything you learned, painfully, in college about drinking–don’t mix, try to avoid raw shellfish when drinking–they do all of those things.”

(This post is by no means intended to be a comprehensive take on Korean alcohol or customs. But it is meant as a brief survey.  For a more comprehensive look, see here.  For some rules and customes, see this CNN article.  However, No. 7 on the list is something I never knew/saw/heard of in my four years in Korea.  But perhaps that says more about my ability to keep up.)

The Korean drinking culture has strong roots in its the work culture, where long days at the office lead into mandatory hosik (호식) dinners.  These dinners, with a boss/senior/supervisor are nights of middle-aged men binge drink like college students: samgyupsal and soju followed by, say, yuk-he (육회) and soju followed my makgeolli (막걸이) and pajeon (파전) followed by whiskey (and sometimes the girls who serve the whiskey) followed by a norebong (노래방) session.  And that might be a Tuesday.  However, the hangovers and embarrassing behaviours are starting to catch-up (if only a little), and companies like Samsung are trying to curb the culture.

Koreans can sometimes pride themselves on how many bottle of soju they can drink.  Three.  Four.  Maybe five and a nice nap on a park bench for the night.  (There are some disparaging blogs on Koreans who are passed out in public, which is quite common.  And so is “street pizza”, the colloquial term for the piles of vomit one might find on the street between 10pm and 10am.)

If soju is not your thing, try to impress Koreans by ordering baekju (백주), a herbal liquor that means 100-year old alcohol, which it is not.  It is strong, perhaps more potent than soju, but it offers a little less facial cringe than soju.  For ladies, who are typically more politely excused from macho soju drinking, reach for a sweet and savory bottle of bokbunja (복분자), a raspberry wine.  If Korean men are around, the ladies might get a few giggles or some extra attention since this raspberry, native to northeast Asia, is considered to be an aphrodisiac.

And finally, make sure to put your left hand under (at least) your right elbow when pouring alcohol.  The higher up on your arm you put your hand the more polite you are being.  (You shall never pour your own.  Younger crowds will give you a swift snap of the fingers in your face for being so rude and selfish.)  The tradition, it goes, comes from monks and yangban (양반)–the scholars and noble ruling class of the Joseon (조선왕조)–who had long robes and needed to hold up the drooping sleeves while reaching across the table and over candle flames.  Also, when in doubt, do the full shot, except with makgeolli, which is meant to be sipped at a normal pace.  As far as makgeoli goes, my favorite is honey (굴막걸이).

[Stay tuned for a post on a former Japanese bomb shelter in Busan that is now perhaps the world’s finest tasting “makgeolli” alcohol joint (술집). ]

For a look at Bourdain’s jet-lagged 2006 trip to South Korea, see his show from Season 2 of “No Reservations” see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NVVK4o9LL8

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Korean with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.