Korean drinks 101 – THE ICONIC GREEN BOTTLE – WHY DO KOREANS LOVE SOJU SO MUCH?
When a survey report conducted by Euromonitor came out in 2014 to crown the South Koreans as the biggest hard liquor drinkers in the world (13.7 shots/week of any spirit), twice as drunk as the Russians (6.3 shots/week), and four times less sober than the Americans (3.3 shots/week), everybody was taken aback, except the South Koreans themselves who didn’t find the result surprising at all. (Even when considering the fact that a large portion of Korean consumption comes from soju 소주, a Korean spirit with 16-21% alcohol by volume while many other spirits usually have double that of soju, with 35-42% alcohol by volume, and after adjusting the data accordingly by dividing the Korean stats by half for fair comparison, Korea still comes on top at 6.85 shots/week).
According to research conducted in 2017, Koreans drank 3.4 billion bottles of soju. When divided by the number of people of legal drinking age, that’s 85 bottles per person per year, or, 1 1/2 bottles per week per person. And while heavy drinking is certainly nothing to brag about (unless you are at a frat party), it shows how much Korean people love soju, among all other drinks available. One of the biggest reasons is that at just 1,800 Korean Won ( = 1.5 USD) a bottle at a convenience store, soju has always been there for the ordinary people, through thick and thin like a loyal friend overflowing with jeong. Hence in popular culture, the iconic green bottle has been a symbol of joys and sorrows of the ordinary people, with the magical property of helping people vent, bond, and do stupid things like falling in love. Put differently, soju is what causes all the drama around us. Speaking of which, here are some of the most overused Korean drama clichés featuring soju.
KOREAN DRAMA CLICHES FEAT. SOJU
DRUNK “LOVE CONFESSION” AT POJANGMACHA
A boy and a girl (let’s say Junho and Youngmi, both of legal drinking age) are sitting across the table at pojangmacha 포장마차 (tent/street bar) . Yougmi has a secret crush on Junho. The unsuspecting boy Junho starts talking about other girls. Youngmi, lightweight and never drank with Junho before, pours soju into her shot glass and gulps it down. Junho, dumbfounded, says, “What’s wrong with you?” and grabs her wrist to stop her. Yougmi violently shakes him off and says, “Since when do you care?” An hour later, Youngmi, completely inebriated, tongue tripping, manages to blurt out that she likes him, and immediately knocks out on the table. Junho brings Youngmi to her feet but to no avail. As a last resort, Junho decides to give Youngmi a piggyback ride to his home. On the way, Youngmi continues murmuring under her breath, saying “You little b@stard, you… I like you so much… and I hate you…” The next morning, Junho is busy making breakfast for two. Youngmi finally comes to her senses and slowly opens her eyes and looks right and left. Appalled, she almost jumps out of the bed but finds herself in Junho’s oversized T-shirt. Noticing she’s awake, Junho says, “Good morning, my beautiful girlfriend!”
BOSS & SUBORDINATE FACE-OFF AT POJANGMACHA
“Just do as I say! I’m your superior!”, says Director Kim, and Seho, his subordinate, keeps his head down to Director Kim’s angry voice. Back in his cubicle, Seho is burning with a low blue flame. It’s a typical scene in Korean dramas set in a Korean workplace – notoriously rigid and hierarchical, with many unspoken rules, and subordinates are expected to follow the orders from above, no matter what, because giving honest opinions and expressing candid emotions to superiors can be seen as disobedient. The scene shifts and they are at a pojangmacha near the workplace after work, drinking soju. Both quite drunk, Director Kim opens up first. “Hey, are you still upset about the order I insisted? I’m sorry, man. I did it with our team’s interest at heart.”. Seho, with his eyes half-closed, manages to retort, “You know what, sir? You shouldn’t have done that if you really care about the company… You know… How dare you! I thought you were a good guy but I’m disappointed… You… You…” And goes face-first onto the table. Director Kim hails a cab and puts Seho in the back seat and pays the taxi driver in advance. The scene changes again to the next morning. Seho barely makes it on time to work. Director Kim walks by and leaves a hangover-cure drink on Seho’s work desk.
“MID-LIFE CRISIS” AND POJANGMACHA AJUMMA
Minsoo, 58, just got laid off from work and is alone at pojangmacha , drinking soju, with his favorite side dish golbaengi muchim 골뱅이무침 (spicy sea snails salad). Fed up with life, he knocks down shots after shots, and orders another bottle, but the owner ajumma intervenes. “Minsoo, you already drank too much! Go home to your wife and kids!” Minsoo insists on having another bottle. “I can’t and I won’t! They don’t respect me and they won’t even care if I come home or not. I’d rather just pass out here!”Both funny and sad, these are accurate snapshots of the Korean society at large, and how Korean people manage to make it through the day. For many Koreans, hierarchy, based on age and social status, makes giving honest opinions and expressing candid emotions quite difficult in many situations. But thankfully, soju serves as a lubricant that helps the cogs in the wheel spin smoothly – only when used in moderation. Also, Koreans are quite generous towards what’s said under the influence of alcohol. They are very forgiving and understanding, if they can remember it till the next morning. Maybe that’s why Korean people love those green bottles so much.
Korean drinks 101 – WHY DO KOREANS LOVE DRINKING IN TENT BARS (POJANGMACHA)?
Pojangmacha 포장마차 (often shortened to just pocha), meaning “covered wagon,” is a no-frills (expect to sit on a plastic chair) mobile outdoor restaurant optimized for efficiency. It takes the form of a tented cart and is usually run by an owner-chef ajumma who can single-handedly make a wide variety of anju (food you eat when you drink), such as sundae 순대(Korean sausage), dakkochi 닭꼬치 (skewered chicken), haemul pajeon 해물 파전 (seafood pancake – Why Koreans eat pajeon & makgeolli on rainy days?), kimbap 김밥 (Korean roll), tteokbokki 떡볶이 (stir-fried rice cake, recipe HERE), golbaengi muchim 골뱅이무침 (sea snail salad), and many more. The dishes are prepared fast and are relatively cheaper than dining out at a regular restaurant, making pojangmacha a perfect spot for Koreans who need a quick bite and a bottle of soju after work. This is why most of them are clustered around office buildings, but it’s also a popular dating spot because of its lively atmosphere and is quite charming especially during the sunset. These days, the number of pojangmacha is constantly decreasing due to sanitary concerns and taxation issues, and “indoor pojangmacha” is on the rise as a result.
Korean drinks 101 – SOJU – THE WORLD’s BEST SELLING LIQUOR 11 YEARS IN A ROW
The name soju means “burned liquor” because it’s made through distillation. It’s colorless and has just a hint of sweetness, which varies depending on the choice of sweeteners by the manufacturer, but popular choices are saccharine, aspartame, and stevia. The first version of soju appeared in the 13th century Goryeo Dynasty when the distilling technique was introduced during the series of Mongol invasions. Today, Andong 안동 soju is considered as the direct root of the modern soju we drink today. Originally, soju was made from distilling alcohol from fermented grains such as rice, wheat, or barley. With the prohibition of the traditional distillation technique to alleviate the rice shortages back in the 1960s, diluting the highly distilled ethanol made from potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tapioca became the only method, and it subsequently gave birth to cheaper versions of soju that captures the majority of the market share today. The ban was eventually lifted, and many companies have been putting efforts into reviving the traditional distillation methods, and these “premium” soju brands are gradually gaining popularity. How fiery is soju? The diluted ones range between 16% to 21% alcohol by volume, while distilled ones range between 17% to 53% alcohol by volume. In 2015, fruit-flavored soju with a lower alcohol content (13%), held sway over the young soju drinkers, who didn’t enjoy the strong alcohol taste of regular soju.
Korean drinks 101 – WHY ARE ALL SOJU BOTTLES GREEN?
Almost all (diluted) soju products come in a green bottle, no matter who makes them, and there are marketing and practical reasons for this. When mass-produced soju first appeared in the market, the bottles were colorless. They were the norm until the 1990s, but everything changed when a soju brand called “Green Soju” made a debut. This new contender adopted the slogan of “eco-friendliness,” and provided a milder taste than regular products, and became a huge hit. Naturally, other manufacturers followed suit and started putting their liquor into a green bottle. On the practical side, when the bottles come out of the factory, they are green, and it means no further processing such as dying is necessary, and they are available for immediate use. Hence, it’s the cheapest and most readily available design. In 2010, the soju manufacturers signed an agreement to standardize the shape and size of the bottles, so the used bottles can be shared and recycled regardless of the manufacturer.
Korean drinks 101 – WHAT ARE POKTANJU & SOMAEK AND WHY DO KOREANS LOVE THEM?
Poktanju 폭탄주, literally meaning “bomb shot,” refers to a cocktail drink made by mixing a high-proof drink, such as whiskey, with a low-proof drink like beer. It is termed so because dropping a shot of whiskey into a glass of beer creates an effect similar to that of a bomb explosion, and also for the fact that it makes you get drunk faster. In the past, only the privileged could afford to drink whiskey, so the ordinary people looked to their friend well within reach, soju, as an alternative. Among many variants, somaek 소맥 (pronunciation “so” and “mack (as in “mac n cheese”) or “McDonald’s”)” soju + maekju 맥주 “beer”) is the number one choice among Koreans who lack the time but want to reap the benefits of alcohol in the shortest amount of time possible! The 3:7 ratio (soju:beer) is the most popular formula.
Korean drinks 101 – WHAT KIND OF KOREAN DRINKS ARE THERE?
You can’t buy Korean liquor online, but guess what? You can make traditional Korean rice liquor 막걸리 makgeolli at home!