A reader recently e-mailed me about alcohol consumption. His question: "I was told that Koreans drink in the street, drink more while eating, go to another place for even more drinks, and some even pass out on the street. Are all Koreans alcoholics or something? Is it expensive?"
Yes, I replied – so long as the working day is done. Seriously, though. Let's get one thing straight: Koreans love to drink. Are they alcoholics? No, certainly not all of them – though some would probably drink an Irishmen under the table. Alcohol is available in most restaurants, virtually every convenience store, and can be bought 24 hours a day.
Speaking of convenience stores, some will feature plastic chairs and tables to serve as a poor man's 'bar'. They're not much to speak of in terms of ambiance, but they're good meeting places to catch up with friends (or to make some new ones).
In Korea, there is no open-container law, and no cop will stop you on the street to give you a sobriety check. This means you'll see some drunk people walking on the street, and perhaps a few people passed out on the street or subway seat. As you might with drunk people elsewhere, it's usually a good idea to give them a wide berth.
So what can you drink? I'm so glad you asked: Beer (맥주, or maek-ju) is about as common as tall apartment buildings, and almost as easy to find. Ranging from around 2,000 won for 500ml at a convenience store up to 15,000 won for a big pitcher at a bar. Cass, Hite, OB, and other domestic brands are very similar to what you'll find elsewhere in the world. Imported brands are available as well, but you'll pay a bit more for the privilege.
Soju (소주) is both cheaper and more potent, which is possibly one reason why it's favored by many locals. A green glass bottle will set you back around 1,000 won (less than 1 US dollar), but packs a punch – about 20% ABV on average. In 2007, the Korea Times reported that the average Korean man drinks 90 bottles of the stuff every year.
Makgeolli (막걸리) is a milky white rice wine. It goes down smooth, is fairly cheap, and is surprisingly good. At first, you think, “rice wine?!”, and then you try it. Pour it from a kettle and drink it cold from a metal or bronze bowl.
If drinking in public – or meandering with beverage in hand - there are a few things to know. Trash cans are always hard to find, but make an effort to find one. If you’re going into a store / bar / restaurant, finish it or leave your beverage outside. To avoid the hangover the next morning, drink plenty of water and pick up some aspirin from a pharmacy.
Chris Backe is an ex-pat living in South Korea with a penchant for blogging and travel. Like about 20,000 other foreigners in Korea, he teachs English as a full-time job / source of income. When not teaching, however, he is out exploring the dynamic society that is Korea. Chris makes it a point to visit one new place, event, or festival every week. You can read more about what's going on in the land of the morning calm on his blog Chris Backe - AKA Chris Backe in South Korea!