In Korea, drinking is a social art. It is enjoyed in groups, at business dinners, family celebrations and nightclubs. When people get together they often will join in for a bottle (or two or three or seven) of soju.
Soju, a rice liquor made in Korea, is the most popular spirit in the land. It is uniquely identifiable with Korea.The clear liquid has a smooth, crisp and somewhat bitter flavor. While most soju ranges in the 20-25% alcohol content, it’s potency can vary from 10% up to 45%.
While I spent most of my time in Korea, unwinding in a Buddhist monastery in the tranquil Songnisan Mountain National Park, I set aside three nights to explore the bustling fashionable metropolis of Seoul.
Curious about soju, I ask Joon-Tae Kim, my amiable host at my guesthouse in the trendy Hongdae neighborhood, for some recommendations on the best place to try Soju. Knowing that I had arrived solo, his first question was “Where are your Korean friends? ” Unbeknownst to me soju is a social tipple. He told me it would be so sad for me to drink it on my own.
Since I didn’t have a Korean posse in place, I asked Joon-tae to give me a soju tutorial. The first thing I learned is that whenever people are gathered together, usually they are joined by soju.
Drinking soju is a way of social bonding in Korea. “If I drink with you, you are my friend,” Joon-tae tells me. “When going out soju is main ingredient for a good time,”
But soju is not just for social calls, it is also an important part of a business encounters. Whether you are meeting with a client, negotiating a deal or connecting with your colleagues after work, soju is usually included. “It’s good for business relationships,” Joon-tae tells me. “It makes for a more dynamic atmosphere.”
So what to do if you don’t like soju and you’re out with your boss? Drink it, because according to Joon-tae, drinking itis a symbol of politeness.
Korea has some strict rules for drinking soju, he informs me. Some are related to their culture of respecting their elders. Generally the younger person serves the older person.
If you are receiving a glass of soju, you hold your glass with two hands, with your left palm on the bottom and your right hand around the glass. If you are pouring a glass for others, always use two hands.
It is considered rude to drink in front of your elders. You must turn to the side, so that only your profile is seen, and cover your mouth and glass with hands.
After all this formality one would think that you might sip your tipple gracefully like a fussily preparedcup of tea. This is not the case; you are expected to down the glass in one shot. And then most likely the glass will be quickly refilled. An empty glass is considered bad thing. But you never pour your own glass and you never fill a glass unless it is completely empty.
With the younger generation of Koreans, many of these rules are relaxed. Soju is often served mixed because its bitter taste is not as palatable to the youthful crowd. A popular cocktail is a slushy blend of soju with fresh fruit such as strawberry, lemon or kiwi.
My first stop on my soju adventure is Hosi Tam Tam a barwith a bohemian French theme, where I order a bottle of Jinro, the most popular brand in Korea. We drink it straight up. The liquor is potent, but not as strong as a shot of hard liquor. It is bitter and dry. I am glad to have a palate cleanser of crackers nearby.
Next it’s off to Soju Has, achic nightspot. Plush red velvet couches fill this hip lounge. We sample soju mixed in a blender with papaya. Our pitcher looks like a juicy daiquiri from the tropics. The fresh fruit masks the bitterness of the soju, but a hint of its flavor shines through giving the drink a good balance. Plus there is little sugar added which allows it to avoid tasting like a cloying sweet cocktail one would find at an Ocean City beach bar.
As the pitcher winds down, so do I, as I have an early flight to Tokyo. I won’t be experiencing a marathon round of soju drinking, that Joon-tae tells me is fairly typical. But before I turn in for the night at the guesthouse, I say farewellto my newly-minted sojufriend.