How to Drink Soju Without Insulting Your Korean Friends
If you've seen any Korean show or movie, you're probably indirectly familiar with soju. The ubiquitous alcohol is the country's national drink, so if you really want to get to know the culture, plan to have a fun night of soju drinking.
Korean soju dates back all the way to the 13th century and is traditionally made with distilled rice, though it can also be made with potato, wheat and other grains and starches. Its distilled nature means it's often compared to vodka or other distilled spirits, but with an average alcohol content of 20 to 24 ABV, soju is much more palatable — which is why it's so popular for a night of endless shots.
But even during a fun night of drinking games, South Korean society is dominated by strict rules of social interaction. If you're out drinking with Koreans or, even better, in Korea, you won't be expected to immediately know the rules. Still, you'll have a much better time if you can participate in the intricate rituals that surround soju (and alcohol in general). Hey, you can even make a game out of not messing up the rules: Drink every time you forget one!
Impress your Korean friends (and avoid inadvertently insulting them) by learning how to drink soju the right way. Take it from someone who lived in South Korea and wished they had known these rules.
Learn How to Open a Bottle of Soju (It's Not as Simple as it Looks)
It's the beginning of your night out, you get your first (of many) soju bottles, twist off the cap and serve. So far so good, right? Nope! You just messed up the first step of correctly drinking soju.
There's a specific way to open a soju bottle, and it involves creating a small whirlpool inside the bottle. To do that, shake the bottle or spin it for a couple of seconds until the whirlpool forms. Then, hit the bottom of the bottle against your elbow twice. Only then should you open the bottle, being careful not to break the ring of the cap (we'll tell you why later).
This tradition reportedly began back when cork tops were used instead of caps. Swirling it helped any cork pieces float up to the top, and they'd be shaken out after opening. While it's not necessary anymore, you won't catch a Korean opening a bottle without making the whirlpool first.
No one will actually be offended if you don't do this. And to be honest, it's not as easy as it sounds. I was never able to get my whirlpool up to the standards of my Korean friends while I was there. Most likely, any Korean you're with will volunteer to open the bottle, since they'll expect you to not know how to do it. But if you master the art of the soju bottle, you'll impress everyone.
OK, you learned how to open your soju bottle. Now, you just start pouring for whoever is closest to you. Wrong again.
As a formerly Confucian society, South Korea still strictly adheres to the principles of respecting your elders. And by that, we don't mean people over 65; we mean anyone who is born even a year before you.
So, really, the first thing you need to do when interacting with a Korean person is ask their age. Trust us, they won't be offended. Once you know the age hierarchy of the group, you can know how to act with each person.
Generally, you should pour drinks for the oldest person first (or, in a work context, the person with the highest ranking) and wait for them to do cheers before drinking yourself. If possible, you should also not refuse the first soju drink an elder offers you, which will normally be poured into a small glass and drunk as a shot.
When taking the shot, do not, we repeat, do not, drink facing your elder or superior. It's considered very rude to show your open mouth. Instead, turn sideways and cover your mouth with one hand while using the other to take the shot.
On the flip side, if you're drinking with friends who are younger, you can have a lot of fun asking them to show you performative respect.
And So Do Hand Gestures
Even if you're pouring for your elders first, you can still insult people if you're not careful what you do with your hands as you pour, or as someone pours for you.
In Korean society, it is disrespectful to hand anything to someone else with a single hand. Usually, you would do that only when treating younger people, and even then, it would be snobby. The correct thing to do is to either hold the object with both hands or to place your left hand with an open palm under your right forearm.
The same rule applies to pouring. If you're pouring soju for someone, hold the bottle with your right hand and place your left hand in the right position as you pour. If someone is pouring a drink for you, hold your shot glass in the right hand and do the same gesture. Use both hands if you want to be extremely respectful.
This is one rule that really does matter. While Koreans are lenient toward foreigners, they do expect at least an effort. Not following this rule puts you at risk of insulting the people you're with.
Pouring Your Own Drink Is Insulting
Pouring rules are pretty strict, so it may seem like a good idea to simply do away with it all and pour your own drink. Once again, this is an absolute no-go.
Confucian societies are very communal and look down upon the idea of taking care of yourself while neglecting others. This value is reflected even while letting loose over shots of soju.
So, yes, you should not pour drinks for yourself and, to make things more challenging, you also can't ask someone to pour you more soju. What's the solution to this boozy catch-22? That's yet another rule.
Be Mindful of Everyone Else's Glass
Stop being selfish, and start thinking of others. That's the magic secret to having everyone's glass always being full.
Don't worry about pouring yourself alcohol. If the people you're with are decent, they'll fill your shot glass as soon as it's empty without you having to say anything. Of course, you're also expected to do this for others, so the golden rule is to be aware of other people's glasses.
This is especially important when drinking with older people since the attention is a sign of respect. If you've had enough and don't want people to keep pouring, simply leave some soju in your glass.
Leave Space for Food
Another rule that Koreans are very strict about is always having food when you drink. It doesn't matter if you just came from the biggest dinner of your life; you have to order food and at least pretend to eat some while consuming alcohol.
I learned this the hard way in Korea when a new friend and I went to have dinner and then wandered aimlessly trying to find a place to get a beer without eating. Korean restaurants literally refused to let us sit unless we ordered food.
This isn't a scam to try to wring the dollars (or, rather, the wong) from your wallet. It's just extremely faux-pas to drink without eating. In the Korean mindset, only people with alcohol abuse problems would do that, so establishments don't want what they deem possible trouble-makers to enter.
That said, if you're very full, just order a small side, and don't finish it all.
Play All of the Drinking Games
If you're on a casual outing with friends in Korea, chances are that drinking games will dominate a big part of the night. The games start as soon as you open up the bottle of soju. Remember how you had to avoid breaking the ring of the cap? Twist the ring until it becomes a straight coil, then everyone at the table will take turns flicking it. Whoever manages to break it wins, and everyone else has to drink.
Korea has one of the most fun drinking cultures in the world, so even if you don't like drinking games, get over your grumpy self and participate. Yes, some of the games will be very silly, and yes, it can be embarrassing to act like a bunny, but this is one of the main ways Koreans socialize, so leave the seriousness behind and go all in.
Oh, and be prepared for everything to be turned into a drinking game. If someone asks you to think of the next game, you'll have five seconds while they chant to think of something, or you'll lose and have to take a drink. If you can't think of anything, go for turtle ship, which in my opinion is the best Korean drinking game of all. You'll place an empty soju shot glass into a larger glass with beer and take turns pouring the soju. Whoever pours enough to make it sink, loses and has to drink the entire somek, or soju-beer drink.
Learn the Drinking Shoulder Song
Speaking of fun drinking games, one of the funnest parts of playing is that when someone loses, everyone else bursts into song. This is something akin to chanting "chug, chug, chug."
But songs are better than chants, and there's even a little dance you can do while telling the loser that you won't stop moving your shoulder until they've finished their entire drink.
This doesn't happen every single game nor every single night, but if it does, jump at the chance of participating. All you really need to memorize is the beginning of the song, which goes "mashora, mashora, mashora, mashora" (literally, "drink, drink, drink, drink"), and then clap the rest of the time.
You can see it in action in this video.
Don't Be Shocked by How Much People Drink
When we say that Koreans drink a lot, we mean a lot. I've lived in places notorious for their drinking culture, including Colombia, France and New York, and nowhere have I encountered heavier drinkers.
In fact, Koreans drink more hard liquor than anyone else, at 13.7 shots per week. Russians, which are in second place, drink 6.3 shots on an average week. This doesn't mean that every Korean drinks or that all Koreans are perpetually drunk. It does mean that you may see people dressed in office clothes passed out in the street.
On a night out, don't worry about keeping up, and accept that you are no match for Korean level of tolerance.
And Don't Be Afraid to Say No
Many foreigners feel somewhat nervous about Korean drinking culture, worrying that they'll have to drink as much as their co-workers and friends. But if you don't want to drink, then don't.
I won't lie and say that people won't mind, but if you don't like alcohol or are abstaining, there are plenty of ways to still socialize. Order some sprite and play the drinking games, or be aware of other people's glasses and fill them up. If you engage in the social rules and partake in everything but the alcohol, it won't be a big deal.
That is unless you're working at a Korean company and are trying to impress the boss and move up the ranks. If that's the case, I have no words of consolation for you.