Drinking Culture in Korea

Curious about the drinking culture in Korea?

It’s useful to know as it will help you bond with Korean friends and become better acquainted with co-workers. You will likely end up learning some Korean in the process, too!

If so, we’ve everything you need to know below. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite drink, and read on!

Aerial view of a group of people doing a cheers over a table

If you’ve ever been to Korea as an adult, either as a student or as a worker, you probably noticed right away how much Koreans drink. In fact, it’s been statistically proven that Koreans drink more than people in any other country in Asia!

You might have also noticed how difficult it seems to escape from meetings involving drinking, even if you’re not into it yourself. Almost every time you meet a new person, or even an old friend, someone will likely suggest a round of drinks. The impression you get is that it’s an important part of Korean culture, and that soju is especially liked by Koreans.

However, you’re probably wondering how the Korean drinking culture came to be this way. You might still be curious about all the rules that have to do with it, such as never leaving a glass empty. With this post, we would like to explain to you why the drinking culture in Korea is the way it is.

Koreans believe drinking helps to get closer to others

One big reason why the drinking culture in Korea is so heavy is that it opens people up. Even the shyest man becomes more talkative after a few glasses of soju, and thus, if someone new suggests going out for drinks with you, it’s because they want to break the ice faster and get to know you better. Not only that, but Koreans think that by having some drinks together, one can build a stronger friendship with the other person. This seems to apply to both interpersonal social relationships as well as work relationships.

The alcohol is incredibly accessible

soju bottles

While Korea is getting stricter at checking IDs at bars and convenience stores, alcohol is easy to access to anyone possessing such an ID. If you go to your nearest convenience store, you can get a soju bottle for 1,500 won at most – that’s cheaper than bottled water in many Western countries! Not only that, but Korea lacks any rules when it comes to selling hard liquor. This means that in any supermarket or convenience store you go to you can find hard liquor, from soju to tequila, in all of them, day or night.

Drinking is a part of the working culture

It might not be normal at most companies to drink during working hours, but it is common to have work dinners together with your co-workers every once in a while. And you might have already guessed it that soju or other kinds of alcohol are a big part of these work dinners. There are several reasons why these work dinners happen, the most important one being the bonding opportunity with colleagues and bosses. Therefore, it’s frowned upon not to attend. While you’re at it, how about learning how to say “cheers” in Korean too? That’ll come in handy!

The Korean drinking culture goes all the way back to the old days

Since the invention of Korean alcohol several hundred years ago, Koreans have had the habit of consuming alcohol when celebrating important holidays. During those times, and still today, this took place during a ritual to show respect to ancestors. The reason for drinking was quite different then from what it is now, but alcohol has always been important to Koreans.

Hierarchy says you can’t say no


It’s also the norm that if your elder offers you a glass (or ten!) of soju, you should accept every single one of them as a sign of respect. The fact that they are even inviting you out for a drink should be seen as a great compliment towards you. This naturally adds to the amount of alcohol consumed in Korea as especially older people like to end their days (or start their days) with some liquor.

There are plenty of other etiquettes that come with drinking with your elders: you should always hold the bottle with both hands as you pour and accept your drink with both hands; you should never pour your own drink, and you should turn your head away from the elders as you take the shot.

Saying ‘no’ tactfully

Directly saying no to a drink, in general, could be seen as rude. However, Koreans will understand if you don’t drink for medical or religious reasons. If you really don’t want to drink, it’s best to politely say ‘no’. You might suggest saying that you are on some medication that doesn’t allow you to drink alcohol.

If you don’t want to drink you can politely say:

저는 술 안 마셔요 (jeoneun sul an masyeoyo | I don’t want to drink)

If you can’t drink because of health reasons or if you don’t have drinking abilities you can say:

저는 술 못 마셔요 (jeoneun sul mot masyeoyo | I can’t drink)

Can't read Korean yet? Click here to learn for free in about 60 minutes!

Living in Korea can be stressful

And in order to decrease the level of stress, whether it’s due to family, a relationship, or work, Koreans like to get together at the end of the day over drinks to air it out. It’s perhaps a familiar situation to all of us that it gets easier to talk about what is bothering one’s mind when there’s some alcohol involved to loosen the situation. This is also seen as a bonding experience with fellow drinkers.

There’s no worry about getting a hangover


Korea has bulked up on so many different hangover cures – from drinks consumed prior to your first glass of soju, to grapefruit ice cream (wait, what?!) to specific kind of soup to eat the morning after – that it’s difficult to consider the possible consequences of drinking. And, hey, is that so bad? It’s better than staying in bed all day feeling like your head will explode every time you sneeze!

It’s best to practice moderation when it comes to drinking, even while you’re in Korea, but it could be a fun experience to go out with the locals for a crazy night of soju just once. Just keep the hangover cures in mind!

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9 thoughts on “Drinking Culture in Korea”

  1. this is really interesting! i came wanting to learn a little bit more about korean culture! but kinda dont get the turning away while drinking… i hope i can learn more about it and then start learning different things about korea!~

    1. In episode one of the popular drama Itaewon Class (on Netflix) you can see the main character learning how to drink from his father, including “turning away.” Since the main character owns a bar, you will see people drinking alcohol often and see the culture therein. I highly recommend you check it out if you can 😀

  2. I’ve always had this question because I plan on studying abroad and know most Koreans drink but I personally can’t consume alcohol due to my religion

    1. Don’t worry, Ana! Koreans love drinking, but they also understand people’s religious backgrounds! Lunches and casual meetings will be totally fine, and even if it’s a drinking party, they’ll order soda or non-alcohol drink for you! ^^

  3. I see that many countries throught out the globe feel somewhat similar towards alcohol. My ancestors as well liked fermented beverages with and without alcohol, seems that every culture did it for basically the same reason: getting free of whatever stress and or for ritual , or medicinal purposes. In my country there are several depending on the region: Tepache, Pulque, Pozol, from grains to fruits.I am from Mexico by the way, and it’s so interesting how this thing also unites us as species around the globe . And of course moderate consumption is a must so you dont put yourself at risk or anybody.

  4. A new study has found that 13 South Koreans die on average per day due to alcohol-related circumstances. They have the highest rate of suicide, depression, alcoholism, pay inequality, hours spent trying to get into college… this is a screwed up culture, and it’s time to stop glorifying it.

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