If you peruse online forums and social media sites, you’ll find tales of massive drinking episodes from Westerners who’ve visited or lived in South Korea.
They post their experiences of many bottles of soju with huge plates of delicious food.
So, is it true? Do Koreans drink a lot? Yes, they do. Believe it or not, they drink more than Russians, Germans, or Americans.
All three of these groups are famous for consuming alcohol. But, honestly, South Koreans sit at the top of that list. They consume more soju than Russians and Americans combined.
Drinking Statistics in South Korea
South Koreans, on average, consume nearly 14 shots of liquor each week. Compare that to Germans who consume about 10 to 11 drinks, 6½ for Russians and 4 for Americans.
That means South Koreans consume the most alcohol in the world.
However, we have to take alcohol content by volume (ABV) into consideration here. While Koreans may consume the most amount of alcohol per week, this is mostly soju.
This distilled rice spirit, which dominates 97% of the liquor market, has a very low ABV.
The average 375ml bottle runs in the range of 7% to 28%. There are some as high as 40%, but that’s very rare.
Their beers are also very weak in this way.
Let’s dive deeper.
Russians, Germans & Americans vs Koreans
When you contrast this to Russians, Germans, and Americans, you get a very different picture.
The most popular liquor in Russia is vodka, and this has a much higher ABV. It’s usually between 30% to 40% or more.
Americans and Germans consume a variety of alcoholic beverages. These can be things like beer and wine as well as hard liquor like vodka, whiskey, gin, brandy, and/or tequila.
So, while Koreans are drinking more than any other culture in the world, the strength of their drinks is quite weak.
Therefore, you would have to drink three or four bottles of soju in order to achieve the same effect as you would from one shot of whiskey, for example.
Reasons South Koreans Drink So Much
Korea has a long and varied history with alcohol that is intrinsic to the culture.
Because they are a huge agricultural society and have been for many centuries, they have devised many ways to keep and preserve foods.
This is especially important during winter when food stores are low, and water is difficult to come by.
So, they developed fermentation techniques that resulted in many rice spirits, such as soju and makgeolli.
It’s a Way to Relax & Bond
Korean drinking culture is about their values of socializing. Whether working or studying, Koreans will play just as hard as they work or study, so they drink to take the edge off.
Plus, it’s a way of bonding with friends, family or others they want to know better.
One of their favorite things to do is to grab a group of friends and go to a good restaurant for several rounds of soju and food.
Because alcohol loosens people up, they speak freely.
It’s Accessible & Cheap
While some people in the West may find it surprising that you can buy alcohol 24 hours a day almost anywhere in South Korea, they approach it differently.
Firstly, the low alcohol content doesn’t impede a person’s ability to function in society as long as they only have one.
What’s more, alcohol, particularly soju, is incredibly inexpensive in South Korea. One bottle costs just under $1.50 USD.
So, not only is it a way to bond and make new friends, it’s an inexpensive way to have a bubbly night out.
This is ideal for college students during exams, and corporate meetings, where having a drink or two is not only acceptable but expected.
Soju is a “Healthy” Alcohol
Also, the country as a whole promotes healthy eating and alcohol consumption.
Therefore, many soju manufacturers add minerals and vitamins to their products to help reduce hangovers.
They will even include ingredients that will help people wake up and function well the following morning.
It’s not uncommon to find things like red ginseng, ginger, and potassium.
Drinking Etiquette in Korea
South Koreans have devised an entire etiquette with drinking rules to follow, which also contribute to their huge culture around alcohol.
Because they value socializing, drinking alone is not acceptable.
Also, it is rude to turn down an invitation for a round of drinks unless ill or taking a specific medication.
Then there are rules to observe in regards to hierarchy, status, and age when out drinking with others as a group.
For instance, the youngest person in the group has to pour for everyone else, starting with the eldest member.
Also, you cannot leave the restaurant, club, or bar until the eldest person in the group does.
Some Legal & Social Issues
While soju has a low ABV, that does not impede the police from complaining about abuse from drunk people.
What compounds this is the fact that Korean laws do not have severe punishments for the extremely inebriated.
If they get into a scuffle with the police, they can sleep it off at the station and go home when they sober up.
Alcohol consumption is an ever-present activity in South Korea.
While it’s true they do drink a lot (and there are some legal and social issues with this), it really isn’t that much.
This is especially true when you compare it to the strength of drinks in Russia or the US.
Drinking and socializing is essential to the culture, and it defines the meaning of a Korean.
It speaks to their love of food, laughter, and friendship while relaxing after a long, hard day.