Photo via Flickr user Eco Dalla Luna
Park Sung Min wakes up with a hangover twice a week, almost every week, the mornings after outings with his colleagues at the SL Corporation. Being so frequently hungover, though, doesn't faze him, because he has a weapon.
It's an anti-hangover drink that Park, along with scores of other liquor-loving Koreans, turn to regularly to help them metabolize alcohol and more quickly recover from long nights out on the town. The drink is part of Korea's culture of haejanghada, the practice of getting over a hangover, which, together with special chewing gums and pills, make up a gigantic industry in the notoriously heavy-drinking nation.
This hangover-cure industry, which grossed more than 200 billion won (about $165 million) in 2014, is driven largely by Korea's custom of bonding through drinking, sharing shots of soju, pints of maekju, and "bombs" that mix the two together—not just with colleagues, but also the boss. Drinking outings often take place multiple times a week, and are considered crucial to being a part of corporate culture. For many Koreans, to not partake is simply not an option.
"Refusing to drink is really not a polite gesture in Korean society," said Jay Lee, an assistant movie producer who lives in Seoul. "They [also] need to be at work the next day, and also need to stay as sharp as possible because their boss will be there."
It's a catch-22—and the haejanghada industry has emerged as the answer.
In 1992, Korea's first drink marketed exclusively for hangovers debuted to little fanfare. Koreans, who were well-accustomed to heavy drinking without any supplemental support, continued to turn to the tried-and-true powers of their favorite foods: meaty, oily stews like haejangguk—literally "hangover soup." But with Korea's nascent focus on wellness trends, anti-hangover drinks gained popularity. By 1998, the drinks recorded about 20 billion won in sales, and by 2006, more than 60 billion. Today, earnings have increased ten-fold in just over 15 years.
The contemporary Korean hangover-drink industry is crowded with dozens of varieties, which tout ingredients such as raisin extract, red ginseng, milk thistle, lotus, and Korean pear juice. Of them all, just three brands have risen to claim over 90 percent of the market: Heotgae Condition, which accounts for about half of all sales, is the country's most popular hangover drink, according to Nielsen Korea, followed by Dawn 808 and Morning Care.
These hangover remedies are marketed for every stage of a night out. Some are to be consumed before the cheers-ing begins, to fortify revelers for the night ahead and increase their drinking capacity; others, to be swallowed when the night is over, in hopes of waking up hangover-free; others the morning after, for damage-control. Some are stand-alone products. Some are just one part of a multi-step process that combines drinks and pills.
On MUNCHIES: An Entire Year of Hangover Cures
According to 2011 Korean market research, about two-thirds of Koreans regularly rely on these remedies. Their actual effectiveness is up for debate: A handful of studies have shown Asian pear juice to be an effective hangover deterrent; other research suggests red ginseng and lemon-lime soda can help metabolize alcohol more quickly. Plenty of Koreans admit that the products offer little more than a placebo effect—but they buy them anyway, because it's part of the bonding experience.
Haejanghada products themselves have become a part of the team-building ritual. Coworkers will often consume them together, downing a hangover drink on their way from the office to the restaurant or bar, or stopping in at a store to pick up a hangover pill on their way home. The next morning, offices are full of colleagues nursing their hangovers together, openly using cures as if they were a badge of honor.
"Unfortunately, having a hangover after a company dinner is considered good, because it means you are a team player. It's a complex cultural thing," said Jiyeon Juno Kim, a former engineer based in Seoul.
Some critics worry the haejanghada culture encourages an already extremely heavy-drinking country to consume even more, obscuring or making light of serious issues of binging and alcoholism. In 2014, World Health Organization and Euromonitor statistics showed Korea led the world in hard liquor consumption, with the average Korean downing 13.7 shots weekly, more than doubling the next highest nationality, Russians at 6 shots per week. In comparison, Americans consumed 3.3 shots. Even the Korean government estimates 1.6 million Koreans are alcoholics.
All this boozing doesn't come cheap. The Ministry of Health and Welfare says heavy drinking is costing the country, in spending and losses, more than 23 trillion won a year, or roughly $19 billion.
Not everyone, though, buys into the hangover-cure industry. Some just embrace the hangover. "I personally don't use these drinks because they cost $5," said Lee, "and I prefer buying more alcohol with that money."
Follow Ann Babe on Twitter.