Much like the neighboring Japanese, the Koreans have a rich drinking culture to go along with their near suicidal work ethic. But hey, if I worked as hard as the average Korean did – I’d be driven to drink copious amounts of alcohol too. I barely work half as much and I’m already borderline.
If you like a good drink, Korea is going to feel like a welcome homecoming to you. Not only is the stuff both cheap and readily available, but a large part of being a part of the foreigner crowd is getting out and socializing at the many bars, clubs, and… well… anywhere. Korea has no open bottle law, so you can roam the street with a 1.5 liter pitcher of Hite (Korean beer) and nobody will say boo. I wouldn’t advise it though. We foreigners already have a bad enough reputation in this country.
Koreans put Australians to shame when you compare the amount of alcohol consumed per head to that of we beer swilling Aussies, and we’re hardly a nation of teetotalers either. But it’s not uncommon to smell the rich stink of soju in an elevator in the middle of the day, and a number of my more drunken 5am walks home have seen me pass little clusters of ajoshi (old men) sharing bottles of soju on the plastic chairs and tables outside of convenience stores. In fact, you could easily say Koreans drink more than we evil Westerners – they’re just less rowdy, violent, and sexually promiscuous than we are when they do it. Or they’re just better at hiding it.
First of all, whatever your poison is, you’re likely to find something resembling it in Korea. While you might not find Crown Royal at every bar or your favorite bottle of wine at the supermarket, you will find a passable substitute if you’re willing to lower your standards a little. There’s a joke about dating in there somewhere. The big three: spirits, beer, and wine are all available here in both the cheap Korean version and the slightly more expensive imported versions. Likewise, you can find both local and imported ‘RTD’ (ready to drink) items such as Vodka Cruisers, Red Bear, and the awfully named Hooch.
There are also a few local options such as makali (a rice wine that looks and tastes a bit like alcoholic yogurt), plum wine, and the infamous soju, which is brewed most commonly from rice and tastes like a slightly sweeter (and substantially less potent) vodka. The what of it isn’t what this entry is about though, and more the ‘where’ of it.
No, I’m not talking about a greased up German running down a beach. Hofs are literally places where you can eat and enjoy a meal – usually fried chicken or some God awful fusion that you’ll probably love when you first arrive out of pure homesickness, but will later look upon with the same disdain at which you look at Mini Stop fried chicken and Hershey’s chocolate as a viable substitute for Cadbury. And no, you won’t have a great deal of luck finding Cadbury on the peninsula. Hershey’s has cornered the market.
If you’re looking for a quieter place to have a beer and get a bite to eat, a hof is definitely going to be a better option than the more popular soju bars and the often too crowded foreigner bars. Most will have the local beers on tap (those being Hite, Cass, and OB – all virtually identical) and probably a few imports. The most popular in Korea are Cafri, Corona, Heineken, Budweiser, Asahi, Tiger, and the occasional bottle of XXXX or Victoria Bitter if you’re particularly homesick. I’ve never seen Tooheys New here. Sad truth.
You’ll find hofs are almost everywhere and can be recognised by the presence of a large cartoon chicken most of the time. American themed places like Miller Time have better food (and usually an English speaker or two) on hand, but you pay a premium for the service. Ditto the Wa Bar franchise – which has a better selection of imported beers than most.
Special mention also goes to the ice bars, in which your drink is served in a glass made of ice (and wrapped in a sleeve to protect your hands). Once you’re done with your beer you unsheath your beast and throw it at a target to try and win a prize. These usually end up being cheap orange drink or another beer, but the promise of a good prize only keeps people coming back for more.
Vodka did a real number on my during my college years. With a bottle of the cheap stuff only running at around $20, it was a good deal cheaper than drinking something I actually liked. I think I can pin-point the exact night where my tense relationship with vodka took a turn for the worse. I was at a party at my good friend Lez’s house and ran out of mixers well before I ran out of vodka. Young and stupid (and not at all interested in calling an end to my drinking) – I started mixing with whatever I could find. Woodstock Bourbon & Cola, white wine, beer, and eventually red cordial straight from the bottle. Over the course of that night I lost my lucky hat, did a dive forward roll over an armchair and put my foot through a table, and ended the evening hugging the toilet and vomiting bright red because of the cordial.
Since then, vodka and I haven’t been friends.
So soju was something I came to pretty late in my time in Korea. With its taste being slightly reminiscent of vodka, it was a bit hard for me to stomach when I first tried it with my co-worker Daniel in 2007. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of my first year in Korea that I began to realize soju’s awesomeness when mixed with less horrible tasting things. My first brush with this as at Fish & Grill – a chain of soju bars that sell pretty good food and very good fruit soju smoothies that go down dangerously easily. They’re a little weak as is, so order an extra bottle of soju with every jug and be prepared for a blurry night. They come in a variety of flavors including pineapple, kiwi, and strawberry – and different stores will have their own variations.
Soju is also good mixed with virtually any drink you can buy at a convenience store. I’ve had friends drink soju screwdrivers, but I’ve always been partial to the magic of pojo (Powerade + soju). It goes down easy and you’re sucking down electrolytes all night. Makes for a very low key hangover as long as you stick solely to poju. At least that’s how the legend goes.
In 2011 I also discovered soju bars that just serve soju. My good friends Anne, Crystal, Jinho and I have started to frequent them – doing shots of soju (usually cut with a little Cider or a delicious mix of cranberry juice and vinegar) and munching on various snacks that used to be animals. Good times and a lot more ‘native’ than the usually garishly decorated beer bars.
Want to go even more native than a soju bar? Tent restaurants all over the country offer up basic Korean food and usually have soju on offer. I ended a good friend’s bachelor party eating various gross dishes and inhaling soju at an unhealthy rate in 2009, and the highlight of it were the locals taking a break from their eating to alternatively mock and cheer along with our motley crew of drunks.
Where there’s foreigners – there are going to be foreigner bars. While it’s not easy to buy real estate in Korea as a Westerner (I’m pretty sure you need a Korean partner to do the buying) – there are very few towns without a foreigner staffed and run bar. And even in those that don’t, such as Jochiwon with Touch bar, there’ll end up being a Korean bar that gets overtaken by the interlopers and becomes a foreigner bar whether it likes it or not.
In Gwangju the pick of the litter were Abey (Rest in peace), Mike & Dave’s Speakeasy, The German Bar, and Soul Train. In the years since I’ve left you can add Ethnic (a hookah place with an amazing atmosphere), Tequilaz, and Bubble Bar.
Mokpo has P Club and Ice Bar. Seoul has more than you can shake a stick at, but I mentioned them in a previous post.
Busan? Metal City in Seomyeon. Evas, HQ, Kino Eye, Ol’ 55, and Vinyl Underground in KSU. Wolfhound, Sharkies, Geckos Terrace, and Rock & Roll Bar in Haeundae. Thursday Party, a chain of Korean own and run bars worthy of their own entry at a later date, are practically everywhere.
What you get varies tremendously from bar to bar. Some of them are little more than meat markets (I’m looking at you Bubble Bar); some are better to start the evening than to finish it, and some go through weird periods of popularity before becoming dead for months at a time (Soul Train springs to mind). Some are themed (Tequilaz has an obvious theme) and some play more dance music than rock music. It’s going to be up to you which best suit your tastes, and chances are you’ll frequent more than a few during your time in Korea.
One thing they all have in common is that they’re almost exclusively populated by the foreign crowd. You’ll get a few more adventurous Koreans venturing in or out, but you’ll need to go off the beaten track if you want to bring home a pretty Korean girl to meet the parents.
I find that foreigner bars are the best bet when you’re new to a town for obvious reasons, but as your year progresses you’ll cut your rotation down and end up spending time in less crowded haunts. I know that’s been the case with me, although single Chris does tend to gravitate back to the promise of strange new girls in foreigner bars. Much to my mother’s dismay, I’ve never shown much interest in Korean girls.
I’m far from an authority on night clubs. In fact, unless I am really drunk or really desperate to feel somebody’s body up against mine, I’ll avoid them like the plague. Korean nightclubs are a lot like nightclubs back home, and are a better place to meet Koreans than the foreigner bars and hofs. Some of them (such as Vanilla in Gwangju) offer special deals for foreigners and most have cover charges that may or may not include a few drinks. The aforementioned Vanilla used to have unlimited draft beer once you got in.
Most are smoky and loud. Most play the same thumping bass you’ll hear in any other club. They’re not for me, but I’ve got friends who end every night out in clubs such as Busan’s Ghetto.
It’s not strictly for drinking, but the Korean equivalent to karaoke definitely does its briskest business when the sun goes down and the liquor starts to flow. If you’re a perfectionist you probably won’t like the echoey microphones used in noraebangs, but there’s very few ways better to end a night than with Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer bellowed out with a dozen of your closest friend in a cramped, garishly decorated room within which the TV shows complete incongruous video to what you’re singing. Kangaroos bouncing around to Maroon 5’s This Love and Korean drama as a backdrop to Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box. It’s almost as entertaining as watching a dear friend blow a vocal gasket trying to hit the high note in Build Me Up Buttercup.
Ok, that was me who blew a vocal gasket. There’s video to prove it.
Rooms are generally cheap and come with plenty of ‘service’ food (free food). Beer and soju are available on site, and some even serve up the delicious fruit soju I mentioned earlier. Some of the seedier establishments, dubbed ‘service noraebangs’, will even rent you a pretty girl to sit in your lip and sing along with you. No sex guaranteed, although I’ve heard tell that it can be arranged between customer and juicy girl. It’s not something I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.
You don’t necessarily have to drink to enjoy your time in Korea. I’ve got lots of friends who never touch the stuff and still have a ball. They save a lot more money than those of us who imbibe too. So no, you don’t need to drink to enjoy your time here.
But sometimes, after a day with screaming kids and a barely coherent director, it certainly helps.