Three o’clock one Wednesday morning I was wandering through Seoul’s recently pronounced “HBC Art village” (formerly unknown “Haebangchon foreign ghetto”) when a familiar voice beckoned me into a well known $20-burger joint for a drink. My glazed looking friend was sitting unsteadily before two partially filled bottles of scotch and tequila. Sitting with him were two exhausted looking young men who dutifully stood to shake my hand before slumping back into position to down their next shot. There were no burgers in sight.
I drank the beer placed in front of me and joined in the next couple shots before thanking my friend and politely explaining several times that I really needed to go home and get a bit of rest. He also needed to get up for work, three hours later.
To say the South Koreans occasionally enjoy a drink is kind of like saying the English occasionally enjoy a nice spot of tea. OK, so that may not be entirely true. Koreans don’t always appear to be drinking for enjoyment. They tend to drink to get drunk, and with typical Hanguk tenacity they tend to succeed. Perhaps this is because their seniors force them to, because they can’t bear the thought of remaining sober during yet another night out with their drunken seniors, or simply because after decades spent obediently getting drunk with their seniors they have inadvertently become alcoholics.
Given the South Koreans’ legendary be-at-work ethic (in 2000 they spent an average of 2512 hours at work annually – equal to 6.9 hours every single day of the year) it’s fair to ask where they find the time and energy for all this drinking. Interestingly enough, in recent years Koreans have realised that perhaps their excessive binge drinking and torturous work hours may not be conducive to good health, so quite sensibly they’ve decided to spend less time working.
So where do they find the time and energy for all this drinking? Well, it’s an integral part of Korean social and professional life whether the people like it or not, and regarded by many as an extension of their job. Heavy drinking is widely considered an appropriate, if not absolutely necessary bonding mechanism in this overtly Confucian, hierarchical society. From the outside it appears kind of like a hazing ritual that commences in the first weeks of university… except it continues for at least twenty years. Whoever survives eventually gets to take their revenge on the following generation. And so forth.
Much like millions of Korean businessmen on any given evening, some of the related statistics are staggering… and here they are.
The world’s biggest selling brand of liquor is Jinro soju. This may come as a mild surprise to the majority of the world’s people, who’ve never heard of it. It is No.1 though, and by a massive margin. At it’s sales peak in 2007 Jinro sold 1.82 billion bottles of its soju, or 5 million bottles per day, almost entirely to Koreans (a few pallets of the stuff get exported to China and Japan).
To put this into some kind of perspective, empty 22.5cm-high Jinro bottles, stacked atop one another, would reach the moon in less than a year. To put it into a slightly clearer sense of perspective… the stacked Jinro soju bottles would reach the top of New York’s Empire State Building every 3.3 seconds.
If you’re wondering about the other liquor brands making the global sales list, it’s an interesting read. Based on aggregate sales of 9-liter cases, Jinro soju topped the list as usual in 2011 with around 61.4 million cases. This was far more than double the sales of the next biggest seller, Smirnoff vodka which sold a relatively paltry 24.7 million cases. The world’s third biggest brand, just behind Smirnoff, was Lotte soju (yep, soju), moving 23.9 million cases in 2011.
So, what exactly is this amazing exotic drink? Well I’m glad you asked, and I honestly have no idea. At a rough guess I’d say that it’s mostly poorly distilled ethanol, delicately infused with paint thinners, diesel fuel and formaldehyde. If for some reason you’re not already half way to the nearest Korean market to avail yourself of this god-awful delicacy, here’s the best part. It costs (in Korea at least) just over one American dollar per 375ml bottle… and so it should.
So… why are Koreans so enraptured with this semi-potable liquid? Again, I can’t be sure. Several Korean friends have told me over the years that they actually don’t like the stuff, but continue to drink it nonetheless and would never reveal their terrible secret to their fellow one-blooded countrypersons. If daring to venture that this sounds slightly nuts, one might be treated to a masterclass of wonderfully Korean circular logic that makes non-Koreans’ heads explode.
In essence (as far as I can gather), Koreans drink soju because they are Korean. Why? Because soju is Korean style. Why is that? Because that’s what Koreans drink. Why exactly? Because we are Korean… and so forth.
In recent years however Korea’s drink-until-you-fall-down culture has slowly begun to change. Women for example are now brazenly willing to suggest that their refusal to regularly drink themselves unconscious with their male bosses should not be grounds for dismissal (those uppity bitches!). Police have gone on record pleading that the general public take them at least a little bit seriously, so as they may attempt to do their job (most of which involves placating belligerent drunks). Draconian new measures have been taken by legislators, who have threatened some repeat drink-driving offenders with the possibility of losing their jobs as Seoul City bus and taxi drivers. These same lawmakers, presumably drunk on their own power, have also inexplicably begun to reject the much-loved Korean law stating that having been drunk at the time is a valid legal defense against pretty much all crime. Perhaps most disturbing however is the absence in recent times of soju juice boxes in the stores. This may have serious future implications for the nation’s children, who are now at serious risk of lacking the training necessary to survive the rigors of Korean adult life.
Don’t despair though. The party isn’t quite over yet. There’s still a reasonable chance you can locate a bottle of soju within about 20 feet of wherever in South Korea you happen to be standing. And of course, since advertisers and K-celebs don’t lie… you can look forward to sharing a few delicious bottles of the world’s biggest selling brand of liquor any time you like, with people who look like this…
…for more photos of extremely relaxed Koreans at play (or shortly after), just visit the wonderfully inappropriate Black Out Korea.