It’s impossible to set foot in Korea and not meet with the ubiquitous local brew: soju (소주).
Soju is a clear alcohol traditionally made from rice and typically containing 20% alcohol by volume. The effects of this particular booze slowly burn until you are suddenly hit with drunkenness like an anvil drop in a Road Runner cartoon.
Soju Drink Guide
This guide on how to drink soju aims to show you how to properly imbibe the national liquor of South Korea.
First my personal favorite method for consumption, “one shot.” Any time someone at the table shouts, “One shot,” everyone is required to drink. In this way drinking soju is enjoyed as you shoot your way through a bottle (or three) with a few friends and the local cuisine.
Long-time South Korean residents say the best way to enjoy “one shot” style drinking is with spicy drinking dishes called anju (안주). An anju dish of sundae (순대) goes just right with drinking soju in my opinion.
Sundae is a wonderfully spicy sausage dish made with carrots, potatoes, peppers and spicy hot sauce. The best part is every bite serves as a wonderful chaser to ease the burn of soju scalding down your throat.
My second choice for boozy joy is in a cocktail glass. Like most clear liquors, soju is great for mixing. The most common cocktail is the soju bomb. This drink of beer (mikju,믹주) and soju called “somik” is the Korean equivalent of an Irish Car Bomb and just as likely to put you on the floor.
My favorite way to make this drink is to pour each beer glass three-quarters full of Cass. (The local’s favorite light beer.) Then line the glasses up and gently place a shot glass of soju on the rim of two adjacent cups. With just the right push, the soju shots will fall into the beer glasses. Then it’s time to slam your drink down.
Cojinganmek (구징안픽) is a mix of one part cola, one part soju and one part beer. The name of the drink translates to “First bad things come then good things”—a perfect description for a drink that starts with a rough somik then finishes sweetly with a shot of cola.
A popular local favorite is the kiwi soju cocktail. This delicious drink is a simple mixture of kiwi juice, soju and ice. Other cocktail concoctions include strawberry, lemon and banana. The soju is much sweeter in a fruity cocktail form and far easier to handle.
If you would like to drink cocktails in South Korea, be prepared to mix your own drinks. Most bars and restaurants sell alcohol, juice and soda by the bottle, not by the glass. Bartenders do not mix drinks unless they work in a Western-style bar. However even the most traditional bars are happy to supply you with all the ingredients you will need for the perfect night of drinking Korean-style.
Last, but most importantly, drink politely. In South Korea it is considered impolite to pour you own drink. Typically the youngest person at the table is in charge of playing “host” and ensuring glasses stay full. However if you find your glass empty, a simple gesture to your glass will garner sufficient attention to see your glass filled again.
Remember to hold your glass in both hands as your drink is poured. If you are pouring someone’s drink, use both hands as well.
Finally when you drink, drink holding your glass with your right hand (or both hands) and turn your head about 20 degrees or so away from the oldest person at the table.
Thankfully Koreans are very forgiving of foreigners breaking the rules and happy to teach you how to drink Korean-style. Besides a few nights practice will have you drinking like a native in no time.
Although some people have described soju as gasoline, it’s truly the drink of the country. At about 1,000 to 3,000 won a bottle (about $1–$3 USD) it would be a crime to miss the liquor of choice in the land of morning calm.
This article was originally published on Art of Adventuring, then moved to WW in February 2017.