6 tips to survive a night of drinking in Korea

November 2, 2015

South Korea rounded out our handpicked list of destinations to explore in 2017 — selected by the experts from G Adventures! From the awe-inspiring landscapes of Iran to the world’s happiest kingdom, check out our collection of places to explore here.

South Koreans drink more than the British, Russians and Americans combined, says a new report out of Europe. Of the 44 countries studied, South Korea consumed more spirits per capita (excluding alcohol like beer or wine) by a large margin — almost 14 ounces per week. Russians were the second hardest drinkers at seven ounces per week.

Considering alcohol’s ubiquity, it’s no surprise that South Korea's drinking culture reveals much about its social structure, lifestyle and traditions. Imbibing in Korea isn’t just about consumption; it’s a bonding process with family and friends — and it’s about more than just getting drunk, it’s about conveying a sense of respect.

"A thousand cups of wine,” goes the old Korean saying, “is not too much when bosom friends meet.” Because drinking is an essential part of socializing, you’ll inevitably encounter a situation where alcohol is served. As with any code of social conduct, if you choose to imbibe, there are some rules you’ll need to follow. Here’s a quick list of the most common drinking faux pas and a few tips on how to avoid committing them.

When it comes to drinking, the oldest is served first.

When it comes to drinking, the oldest is served first. Photo courtesy Graham Hills.

1. Know your place!

Koreans always identify the senior person in the relationship, and defer to them accordingly. When it comes to drinking, that means oldest first. Even someone just one year older is given the honour of being served first, although age is always superseded by position.

2. Don’t decline the first round

Don’t drink? Suck it up! Even if you’re not a drinker, you should accept the first glass poured for you. Decline and risk ruining the “mood”. After that first drink — which is usually downed all at once — you’re free to stop. Don’t be surprised, however, to find your company continuing apace (such is the Korean way); that said, it's okay for you to sip from your glass here on out!

Koreans pour alcohol using two hands.

Koreans pour alcohol using two hands. Photo courtesy Graham Hills.

3. Hold on with two hands

Koreans pour alcohol using two hands — or one hand supporting the other. When your host proposes a drink, pick up your glass with both hands. When you’re finished, however, don’t place the glass on the table — instead, turn it upside down to empty any residual drink. Return the glass, now empty, to your host — and pour them a drink!

4. Turn away, turn away

As a sign of respect when drinking with a person who is their senior, Koreans turn their heads when taking a sip (instead of facing the person directly). When someone senior to you offers you a drink, take the glass with both hands (and bow); these days, however, most people just get up to kneel as a courtesy and take the glass with both hands. Wait, of course, until they raise their glass before taking a drink. And, remember, it’s impolite to decline!

Pour for others; don’t pour for yourself!

Pour for others; don’t pour for yourself! Photo courtesy Graham Hills.

5. Pour for others; don’t pour for yourself

Thirsty? You’ll have to wait until someone’s glass is empty before pouring more alcohol; Koreans generally don’t top off drinks. When a person is pouring you a drink; don’t deny it. Turning them down indicates disrespect. If you want to stop drinking, leave a little in your glass — it won’t be refilled until it’s empty.

6. Know the lingo

If you’re headed to Korea, it’s always a good idea to learn a few useful words. And, if you plan to hang out and drink with locals, you’ll need a few phrases to help you navigate your way through any drinking session. With that in mind, here are the three most important:

Gunbae! (건배!) Cheers! Gunbae is the old-school way of saying “cheers.” It’s most commonly employed in more formal settings — like work functions.

Jjan! (짠!) When among friends or people your own age, Jjan is more commonly employed. Use jjan! with friends or people your age. Don’t use it with the elders.

One shot! (원샷!) You’ll hear this oft-repeated phrase “one shot” wherever alchohol is served. This is the Korean version of “bottoms up” — an imperative to down the whole glass before putting it back on the table.

Bottoms up!

Thirsty for the genuine ‘taste’ of Korea? Remember, alcohol takes up a decent percentage of it by volume. So, even if you’re not planning on drinking, you should be prepared to drink. Bottom’s up! Gunbae!

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures in South Korea encompassing a wide range of dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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