South Korea is the world's leading country in heavy spirits consumption. And soju—the country's unofficial national spirit—is the world's best-selling liquor. Maybe that's why there's so many people sleeping it off in the streets.
Drunk man in Seoul via
Soju doesn’t waste time. It cuts straight to the point and gets you drunk very quickly. This is something I’ve known since I was 16, when I was an underage drinking Korean-American teen growing up in Queens. But this concept didn’t fully register until I moved to Seoul for a short stint three years ago. It was my first night in South Korea’s capital city. I tagged along with my cousin and his crew of hard-drinking buddies to hit the crowded streets that surround Kang-Nam Station. One of Seoul’s most frequented subway stops, the area was packed with bars filled with endless herds of partygoers who assemble there to partake in one of Korea’s national pastimes—getting sauced.
It was a sober hour in the early evening when our group hatched a plan for the drunken night ahead of us. Shortly before 7 PM, the sun was still out and the streets were teeming with thirsty imbibers, the cramped packs of competition in our race to grab a table at the closest bar. I took a moment to soak up my environment. For the first time, I was living in my parents’ homeland, where everyone looked like me and I was naturally supposed to blend in. This was the place where I was supposed to feel as one with my fellow Koreans, who I could connect with if we all sang Arirang in a made-for-TV moment in my imagination. But the reality was a lot of drunk-ass people roaming the streets.
The excitement of Friday night was palpable. Seoul revelers seemed giddy. Young Koreans greeted friends with warm hugs, standing in small circles scheming about which bar to hit up in the long night that lay ahead. Others were on to destination round three.
But there were outliers, like the middle-aged man I noticed sprawled out on the street. He was passed-out-wasted with an empty green bottle that lay as evidence beside his body. Snoring, he reeked of soju as we walked past him. Nobody seemed to notice or care about this plastered man lying awkwardly on his side. Without flinching, people stepped over and around him, like a fresh pile of dog shit marked on the sidewalk. Shortly after, I began to notice the overwhelming mounds of fresh vomit that dotted the concrete every few blocks—piles that were completely disregarded. These streets and their obstacles didn’t seem to phase anyone. So this was Seoul. Everyone had more important things to worry about at 7 PM. I wasn’t wasted yet.
As the world’s leading consumer of hard spirits, South Koreans love to drink. Hard. According to the World Health Organization, South Korea is the leading country in heavy spirits consumption. Soju, the country’s unofficial national alcohol, is the best-selling sprit worldwide, outselling vodka, whiskey, and rum with a commanding lead of 90 million cases sold every year. Soju is typically served chilled and taken in shots. It’s most commonly distilled from rice, but it can also be made from other ingredients like wheat, barley, tapioca, and sweet potatoes. Korean marketing campaigns go hard, slapping A-list Korean celebrities or some attractive Korean model flashing her bare midriff or legs on the front of the bottle.
Korea’s soju market has a variety of brands whose popularity varies by region, but there are two that dominate the palate of Korean consumers and global drinkers alike: Chamisul and Cheoeum Cheoreom. Chamisul classic stands at 20.1 percent alcohol, and is manufactured by Hite-Jinro, the leading seller of alcohol on the planet. If you’re the only one in the crew looking to dodge tying one on, Hite-Jinro also produces Chamisul Fresh, which has a slightly lower alcohol content level at 19.5 percent. Chamisul’s only comparable competition is Cheoeum Cheoreom, which contains an alcohol level of 19.5 percent, manufactured by Lotte. Just like the cola wars, these two brands define soju and can be ordered at almost any Korean bar or restaurant without checking for them on the menu.
In 2012, 3 billion bottles of soju were sold in South Korea. Drinking alcohol—soju in particular—is so ingrained into Korean culture that any celebration, wake, or Korean drama—insert ubiquitous scene of depressed, crying person sitting alone in the middle of the street, downing an entire bottle of soju with synthesizer music here—just wouldn't be the same without it. It’s cheap—a little over $1 in any supermarket or convenience store—and sold 24/7. In a country where illegal drugs are fairly impossible to source, Korean soju addicts and alcoholics band together in a communal love for a drug that comes in bottle form.
When I think back on that passed out drunk from my first night in Korea, it makes sense that none of us acknowledged his presence. If we had, it would’ve caused us to turn around and stay home for the night. To me, soju has been like that good friend you go to whenever you’re in need of something. It can elevate your mood and help enhance a celebration. It’s also going to be there like a shoulder to cry on after a bad breakup. That sentence is probably mentioned in AA meetings, but soju is the truth serum that takes you straight to where you want to be, even if it’s passed out in the middle of the street.
Read more from Tae Yoon at Thwany.blogspot.com.