If there was a worldwide contest for which country has the best nightlife, South Korea would definitely be on the podium. Korea has an unparalleled drinking culture. Whether you prefer a night of soju and karaoke with friends, or enjoy an after work, all-night party with coworkers and bosses, every fan of good times should have Korea on their list of places to go. We rounded up some of the best aspects of Korea’s drinking culture and caught up with Tyler Roney, the editorial director of the Asia travel company Remote Lands, to explain why.
Drinking in Korea is no joke. That’s where anju comes in, which helps drinkers maintain some semblance of balance in their consumption. Anju refers to food that someone eats with alcohol, and it’s omnipresent. Peanuts, dried squid, fresh fruit, fried chicken, and snacks of all shapes and sizes accompany every prolonged drinking session. There are no late-night drunchies because the drunchies are stopped before they ever have a chance to set in. Whatever bar you go to, expect anju to be there too.
“Drinking and expectations about drinking have changed over the past decade,” Roney says, “but making sure there is anju is pretty obligatory.”
Karaoke and KTV bars
If you’re going out in Korea, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in a karaoke bar, or KTV bar, at some point. Karaoke is called noraebang in Korea, which means “song room.” It’s a private room where you and your friends go to gather and belt out K-pop songs. And no matter how much soju you consumed beforehand, there will be beer and more anju to loosen up your vocal chords.
Drinking in Korea is designed for groups, no matter the occasion
Many cultures discourage drinking alone, but in South Korea, many of the drinking establishments are actually designed to keep people from drinking alone.
“Korea’s bar scene is very often built for groups,” Roney says. “Sometimes it’s a Lazy Susan stocked with makgeolli [unfiltered rice wine] or just a KTV bar with beers, but much of the Korean drinking scene is for groups because drinking is viewed—there and just about everywhere else—as an excuse to be more open.”
It’s a place where you can go out and let your hair down, as Anthony Bourdain notes in his Parts Unknown Korea episode: “So it was a no-brainer that as soon as I could, I’d go back to South Korea and do what Koreans do so well: Eat lots of great food, drink lots and lots of beer and soju and other alcoholic beverages—and then do silly shit that you would never do if you weren’t with Koreans.”
Cities are nightlife hotspots, and Korea is basically just a collection of medium to large cities
According to the World Bank Group, more than 80 percent of the 50 million people in Korea live in an urban area. Cities are bastions of drinking culture and quality nightlife, and no matter where you are in Korea, you’re never far from one.
Drinking is part of the job—literally
Going out for the company happy hour is more than just a perk; it’s a requirement. It’s called hoesik, and while drinking with your boss and coworkers can be a cumbersome occasion in the states, in Korea it’s celebratory. Hoesiks, which happen once a month or even once a week, are about getting coworkers to open up and show their true selves. Conversations can be stilted in a work atmosphere, but throw in dinner and some soju, and the mood lightens up. Hoesik is such a part of Korean life, CNN reports, that traffic in Seoul corresponds to the big drinking days of Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“Truthfully, the heavy drinking with friends is never as intense as drinking for work, which is kind of an expected duty in a lot of places,” Roney says.
All the Korean food and hangover cures
The party can’t last forever, but Korea has the answer for the day after, too. The country has some of the most exciting food in the world featuring tangy, spicy and fermented flavors. That food is on every corner, and so are the country’s many hangover cures. There’s haejang-guk (“hangover soup”), which is actually a collection of soups that often contain soothing offal. For the less traditional, there are plenty of other options. With a $158 million hangover cure industry, something’s got to be working, right?