To understand Whisky in South Korea it is important to have a basic understanding of the general drinking culture in Korea. Alcoholic drinks in Korea are very much a part of the culture. In short South Korea is a country of drinkers. In Asia it ranks as the nation with the highest intake of alcohol per capita. Koreans consume 12.3 liters of pure alcohol per year and person above 15 years of age. This places the country at the 17th spot overall in the world. In eat Asia Korea is number one by a wide margin.
For many Koreans alcoholic beverages is viewed as a given in many social situations. Alcohol is used as a way to lower stress from the incredibly demanding workplaces and schools. It’s also used as a way to let loose in an otherwise rigid society. Work hard, play hard is an idiom that seems very fitting to describe drinking culture in Korea.
The most popular drinks are the homegrown liquor soju and beer but other spirits also have their place in the glasses of Korean drinkers. Because of the average Korean’s high alcohol intake and the country’s relative wealth and high standard of living the competition is fierce among distillers, brewers and importers of alcoholic beverages. This has led to many international companies crafting brands and marketing campaigns tailored specifically to appeal to the Korean market. All this despite the country’s relatively small size and a population of just 50 million. Many pop stars, actors and models have lent their star power to endorse brands of alcoholic drinks.
Alcohol is widely available and cheap. The most popular drinks can be found 24/7 in convenience stores that in bigger cities can be found on nearly every street corner. Soju is the drink of choice for most Koreans and a 375ML bottle can be had at a retail price of $1-2.
High class imports
Imported alcoholic drinks such as wine and spirits hold a much smaller market share. Traditionally these relatively high cost drinks have been consumed for their status more than for their flavor. Their consumption has been confined hostess bars were businessmen meet surrounded by beautiful women filling their glasses. Premium scotch was bought by the bottle and often mixed with beer in so called boilermakers. This custom was so widespread in South Korea that it made the country the largest export market in the world for premium scotch.
As the hostess bar scene has waned in the 2010:s imports have gotten a different role. Wine has been on the rise and it seems that the import market now caters to a different crowd. Koreans seem to be developing an interest in imported drinks not just as a status symbol but because of a genuine interest and appreciation for new flavors.
The role of whisky is also changing in Korean drinking culture as several of the local producers and distributors have been trying to introduce it to a younger generation of drinkers who typically have been drinking mainly soju and Beer. This video gives a humourus look at a few young Koreans first encounter with Bourbon Whiskey in the form of Jack Daniel.
Alcoholism and a culture of binge drinking
Many view alcohol in Korea as a growing problem. One of the factors is considered to be the low cost and constant availability of alcohol. Korean drinking culture is centered around social drinking and drinking sessions take part after office or school hours when university students, coworkers and friends meet up for dinner and drinks often followed by sessions of karaoke with more drinks involved. A critical look at the drinking culture in South Korea can be seen in 101 east’s documentary “South Korea’s Hangover”.
At the Bottom of the Glass
For a visitor to the country there is no reason that an encounter with the drinking culture in Korea cannot be a positive one. It is important to remember that the keyword for drinking in Korea is social. It is acceptable to refuse a drink, but a better tactic might be to accept and then drink at a slow pace. If you empty your glass it is sure to be refilled.