South Koreans love their alcohol; no doubt about it. In fact, the country had the highest per capita consumption of hard liquor in the world in 2015. Although Korea might not be well known for its boozy side, anyone living here will tell you it’s a huge part of the culture. From rice wines to cocktails, here are some of the major alcohols you can find in South Korea: your Survival Guide to Korean Booze.
Korean Booze: Soju
My expat friends and I have a saying: “any problem in Korea can be solved with one of two things—soju, or an iced Americano.” While Koreans may live on coffee during the day, at night, they run on soju. You might not have heard of this drink, but it’s the most consumed spirit in the world. In 2019, 86.3 million cases of soju were sold worldwide.
Soju is a clear, mild alcohol that has been produced in Korea since the 13th century. It’s distilled from starches like sweet potatoes, and varies in alcoholic content, but most bottles are around 20% ABV. While it might make it seem like a safer option, this “Korean vodka” will sneak up on you.
Its sweet, smooth taste fools you into thinking it’s less potent than it actually is. However, any expat will tell you to be cautious. It’s very common to see Koreans of all ages stumbling around after one too many bottles. It can also give you a wicked hangover, so drinkers beware.
In Korea, soju is had on every occasion, from work dinners to birthday parties. The most popular sojus that you’ll see is the glowing green bottles of Chamisul and Chum-Churum. They cost just under 2,000 won in a convenience store (around $1.80) and sell for around 4,000 to 5,000 won ($3..60 to $4.50) at restaurants. Soju is also advertised everywhere despite its insane popularity.
Cardboard cut outs of the country’s most famous K-pop idols touting soju bottles are a staple at bars and restaurants. If you want to try soju but maybe aren’t a shot person, you can also sip on the various fruit-flavored sojus or a soju “cocktail”. Somaek is a combination of beer and soju, which is a really popular drink. Soju is also often paired with Chilsung cider (similar to Sprite) or tonic water flavored with lemon.
Korean Booze: Makgeolli
If it’s a rainy day in South Korea, chances are you’ll see a lot of people in the local restaurants eating pajeon (Korean pancakes) while drinking from battered metallic bowls. This is how makgeolli is traditionally served. Even though no one seems to know why drinking makgeolli when it rains is such a phenomenon, it is definitely one of the best ways to spend a stormy day in Seoul.
Makgeolli is a milky, lightly sparkling Korean rice wine with a cloudy appearance and sweet taste. It has a lower alcohol content than soju, usually around 6 to 9% ABV, and has been around for an even longer time than soju.
It is by far my favorite alcohol in Korea, and one that I’m surprised isn’t more popular abroad. It has an almost yoghurty taste and comes in an array of flavors such as honey, chestnut, and blueberry. It’s also good for you, containing around 10 amino acids, yeast, and lactic acid bacteria.
Makgeolli is best enjoyed with Korean food because it’s sweet and tangy taste balances out the more flavorful dishes such as kimchi and pajeon. It’s also famously enjoyed while hiking in Korea.
If you ever visit a national park or a mountain here, you will almost definitely spy a few people along the hiking path with paper cups full of this stuff. Since it’s so refreshing and easy to drink, makgeolli is a hugely popular drink in Korea, with bottles ranging from 4,000 won to 30,0000 won depending on the brand.
Korean Booze: Maekju – It’s Beer
Admittedly, there’s not much to say for this one because, just like everyone else, Koreans love their beer. Typical Korean beers, referred to as maekju, are very light and include big brand names like Terra, Hite, OB, Cafri, Kloud, and Cass. Usually, these are the beers you can find in any Korean restaurant, with bottles costing you around 3,000 to 5,000 won. Personally, Korean lager isn’t my favorite (Thai lager ruined me), but it is perfect when ice cold and paired with Korean barbecue. In addition, the locals love to have chimaek, which is when you have a beer with Korean fried chicken (a delicious combo).
My friends and I usually drink beer in the summer when other Korean alcohol and wine are a bit heavy. Since Korean lager is so light, it’s perfect for a summer picnic, a baseball game, or for sitting by the pool in Gapyeong. In Korea, you can buy large bottles of the most popular beers (around 54 ounces), which are perfect for sharing with friends.
Although these are what you typically see people drinking out and about in Korea, there are many other local alcohols to sample, such as bokbunja, maeshiljui, and sansachun. Wine and cocktails are also slowly growing in popularity, as Seoul becomes more and more international. So no matter what Korean booze you prefer, you can definitely find something to match your taste.
Do you have any favorite local boozes where you live? Sign up for free on TCI and share your experiences with our expat community. We love hearing your insights!
by: Elise Brunsvold