How to survive a Korean drinking experience.
South Korea will always hold a special place in our hearts. The two years that we spent making Korea our home were some of the greatest. We loved meeting and hanging out with our new Korean friends and spent a good amount of time getting to know each other over countless bottles of soju. We made a lot of rookie mistakes when it came to drinking in South Korea and we wanted to spare you the same regrets.
We’ve listed the top things to keep in mind when drinking in South Korea.
1.) Drink when your superiors drink.
It doesn’t matter if the person is your boss, your martial arts master, or just someone older than you, anyone that is considered your “superior” holds a special power over you when drinking in South Korea. If they get the urge to take a shot, you are expected follow. The shot-for-shot rule is key.
2.) Never leave a glass empty.
It’s impolite in Korean culture to pour your own cup, there should always be someone in your party who does if for you. Be sure to always fill up your company’s cups regardless of whether it’s with water or soju. Our hapkido master used to give us subtle hints when his glass was getting low. He’d kindly say “Are you busy?” or “Do you have some time?” before he’d jokingly nod towards his diminishing beverage.
Be it water or booze, once a glass is empty be sure that you refill it.
3.) Pour with two hands.
It’s also Korean custom to pour a glass or hand something over to someone with both hands. It is a sign of respect. If you want to get fancy you can even pour with one hand and put the other hand either on top of it or below it to lend support. It’s considered extremely rude to toss something to someone or hand it over with only one hand. Let’s not be rude now.
It should also be noted that while it is expected that you give/pour with both hands, one should also receive with both hands. If someone is pouring your glass for you, hold it with two hands or put your fingertips to the glass as a sign of respect.
Now that we’ve got your eating and drinking customs covered, we can delve into what to expect from your Korean drinking experience. Koreans are some of the most giving and generous people that we have ever come across. They will also drink you under the table.
We learned that Koreans like to drink, and will do so in some of the most random places you can imagine. We had strangers serve us soju on the bus, old men would shuffle us to their covered verandas to take shots, and day hikers would pour us liberal amounts of Korean whiskey while climbing nearby mountains.
We’ve compiled a few pieces of advice to help you literally survive your Korean drinking experience.
It’s just that simple. It’s even easier than you think. Koreans tend order a significant amount of food with their soju. Fruit platters, mounds of fried cheese, and something fishy are sure to be on the table. Make sure that you eat your fill to leave something in your stomach to help soak up all that alcohol.
2.) Drink a ton of water.
Staying hydrated is key. You’ll be thanking us in the morning. It’s a good idea to drink at least a cup of water for every shot or two of soju that you take. It’ll help prevent you from waking up the morning after and experiencing severe dry mouth and a pounding headache.
3.) Drink Condition.
This little green bottle holds a magical potion that will have you feeling as incredible as one can feel after imbibing 32 bottles of soju. The hangover recovery drink is sold in grocery stores and GS Marts throughout the country. While we have no idea what the ingredients are, we know that they work. Hit the green bottle about halfway through your Korean drinking experience or before you pass out and you’ll be extremely thankful in the morning.
4.) Don’t drive home drunk.
Anywhere. Korea is no exception as the Korean police will often set up random blockades where they’ll breathalyze any driver at will. I hear that Korean prison is no fun. Let’s try to avoid that. Taxis are incredibly cheap and [usually] safer than driving yourself wasted.
5.) Have a stranger drive you (and your car) home.
This whole concept would never fly in the U.S., but in Korea it is perfectly normal. There are companies in the ROK that upon your drunken phone call will come to wherever you are drinking, hop in your car, and drive you home. Then, after they park your car and hand you the keys they magically disappear into the night. I’m not kidding. This has happened to us on numerous occasions. Where these sober saviors disappear to, I don’t know. All I know is that they’re amazing… and totally worth the twenty bucks you pay them. Ask a local in the area to give you the number for one of the companies in town.
We have no doubt that if you take these rules into account, you’ll have one of the most memorable Korean drinking experiences. It’s a great chance to meet new people and get to know the ones that you’ve already met. Have a great time and be safe.
20 thoughts on “How to survive a Korean drinking experience.”
I’m pretty sure I made a few pouring/receiving/drinking mistakes myself on my first trip to Korea. But as they say, you do the best you can and when you know better, you do better so I’m pretty sure I’ll make fewer social faux-pas this time. Thanks for the tip on hangover cure. I certainly could’ve used that this fall! Do you think it’s available in other quickie marts or just GS Mart?
Hi Melissa! Yes, we made a ton of mistake our first couple of times out on the town in Korea. Luckily, our Korean friends were very patient with us.
We saw Condition all over Korea. I think most quickie marts had them as well as the big stores like E-mart, Top Mart, and Lotte. We’ll probably stock up on some the next time we’re there.
letting a stranger drive you and your car home goes against everything we ever learned about stranger danger. you better not be tricking us!
Awesome post and just in time. I’m heading to Korea and need this advice. Never heard about the stranger driving you home. It won’t be unnecessary, but it’s good to know. And that drink condition looks scary.
I’ve learn my lesson – what a creeper that soju! LOL
I found this post so interesting. I really never realised that there lwere so many little customs about how to handle a glass properly! Thanks for sharing:)
The one and only time I was in South Korea I went out with a friend and his co-workers on one of these legendary Korean drinking nights. Or so I’m told, because I don’t remember any of it…
Well, I guess I can’t go to (or drink in) South Korea. I don’t do shots. Not anymore. Thirty shots on my 21st birthday in Australia has me set for life.
How cool is this post? The having a stranger drive you back is weird!!
Now you’re getting to the important things in life: How to drink with Koreans. This is what I’ve been waiting for the year + I’ve been reading your site. It’s about time! 😉
I am glad to see I would fit in well in Korea because I like to fill people’s cups when drinking. I also like to fill mine often too, so good tip for me to avoid that pitfall. I love the idea of the sober stranger driver. Too bad that would not really fly here in America.
That service where they drive your car home exists somewhere in the States. I’ve heard about it. That is brilliant. In any case, I really enjoyed this post – mental notes for when I go to Korea some day!
These tips should come in handy one day… 🙂
This rules apply everywhere!
I love the “have a stranger drive you and your car home concept”! I think I will give it a go…if I still have a car when I wake up, I’ll try it again. 🙂
I’m glad that this post not only included the cultural aspect of drinking but also the very practical aspect of LITERALLY surviving… When I was 18, I went to Korea with some friends who had family there. I was still pretty new to drinking at all… and let’s just say that was the first time I ever blacked out from drinking… Soju is the devil! Hahahaha!
It really is! We’ve never been so hungover in our lives.
I am really impress that Korean drinks do have culture to practice. I love the thought that even when drinking there’s still a sign of respect, this should practice by all countries around the world.
That’s interesting that you shouldn’t pour your own drink! Also, love the fact that you can get a sober cab to drive you AND your car home – that’s awesome.
Drinking in Korea fulfills all of my wildest dreams.