Updated: Mar 27
Soju, whether enjoyed alone or in the company of friends and workmates, is what gives our leads the liquid courage to admit their deepest secrets. But how popular is it, and why is it such a big deal in Korean culture?
Pop Quiz: What is the world’s best-selling spirit (whose sales have never dipped in the last five years)?
Hint: It’s not Johnnie Walker. It’s not Bacardi. It's not even Tanduay (although it is #8)!
It’s Jinro, the South Korean soju brand, that sells nearly 80 million cases a year. Other soju brands like Chumchurum and Good Day also appear in the global top 10 list. Add up all the cases they sell domestically and internationally (plus the sales of other brands like Busan’s excellent C1), well, that’s a LOT of alcohol from -- and for -- a small nation!
Over 90% of soju is consumed in Korea, but it's also enjoying growing worldwide and increased sales, thanks to the country’s increasing soft power. Global k-pop stars like Psy and IU regularly endorse soju brands, and you’d be hard pressed to find a k-drama or k-movie that doesn’t have a drinking scene.
South Korea has a massive drinking culture... and problem. 70% of drinkers prefer soju, followed by beer (22%) before wine and other spirits. Nearly half of males drink “heavily” each month, while 15% of women do so. You can legally buy and drink alcohol (beer, wine, spirits) in Korea once you turn 19, but unlike many countries, they have no time nor location restrictions for selling alcohol. Korea also has no legally binding regulations on alcohol sponsorship or advertising. The end result? Koreans drink roughly 14 shots of liquor each week, out-drinking everyone in the world. To put this in perspective, Russians are ranked second, and even they only drink six shots a week!
Soju used to be distilled from rice and sweet potatoes, but nowadays, the chemistry isn’t too clear. It’s not the best tasting spirit out there, but it is still one of the cheapest ways for the working man (and increasingly, the working woman) to get smashed quick. A 350-ml bottle goes for $1.25 in convenience stores, and can hit you with 15-20% alcohol proof, an effect similar to vodka's.
With soju consumed so regularly, and available so widely and cheaply, you get why every k-drama always has those green bottles around.
On-screen, soju is consumed in all ways possible.
Alone, because life sucks.
And because nothing is more visually representative of what it feels to hit rock bottom than to show someone drowning in alcohol and looking absolutely pathetic. You think you got problems? You ain't got problems like mine until all my green bottles are lined up and empty.
Soju is also shared with friends to celebrate everything and nothing. Best drunk on k-drama rooftops that everyone seems to live in, paired with samgyupsal (grilled meat), teokbokki (spicy rice cake), and kimchi-based stews like budaejjigae to help slow down its effects on the stomach. But once it hits, well, no more awkward or pregnant pauses for the next few minutes!
Until someone spills something TOO honest. Then it's awkward again.
Soju is imbibed freely in bars and karaoke joints, where one needs to prepare for the embarrassing singing to follow. It's also the default drink of choice when unwinding in the pojangmachas (outdoor tents) after a long day at work. South Korea's long hours and stressful work environments make soju the stress-relief shot of choice of many office employees.
The next time you watch an office-based k-drama, try to count the number of green bottles you see on the table. They're usually empty because one has little choice in the matter. In Korea, it's rude to refuse a drink, especially when your boss or an elder is pouring a glass for you.
*Pro tip: Bow your head, accept the glass with both hands, look away, drink the shot, and then offer to pour your superior a glass in response.
But in k-dramas, soju is THE love shot.
Soju is a staple for writers everywhere because it jumpstarts the essential confession scene. Tipsiness is often used to prompt awkward flirtations and the occasional daring move.
The alcohol also helps characters process difficult issues, settle (or start) arguments, trigger a reconciliation, and even coax an apology -- things one can’t do easily in a confrontation-avoidant culture like Korea's.
Soju-induced scenes also segue to predictable clichés: either of the leads gets too drunk, and
therefore must be hoisted home on piggyback, or it makes someone drunk enough to initiate a welcome/unwelcome kiss, a hug ("skinship"), or even more. Now if the leads take the high ground and refuse to take advantage of the situation, then it also leads to the cute hangover scene the next day, where the partner can flex his or her domesticity by conjuring hangover soup.
It would be irresponsible, however, to wax poetic about the functions of soju and gloss over the consequences. Predictably, the most alcoholic nation in the world has a ton of social problems: aside from increasing violence-related issues and injuries, nearly 40% of all traffic deaths and injuries in Korea are attributed to drunk driving (so those scenes involving car accidents are pretty close to the truth). Nearly 75% of drinking men (and 56% of women) end up with liver cirrhosis (a common case in hospital k-dramas). And if these diseases don't get to them, then cancer does. Korean women are also drinking more heavily in the past years, adding to the rising rates of alcohol-related accidents and diseases. One only needs to check out #BlackOutKorea on Instagram to see how bad (or darkly hilarious) it can get. So moderation is key, everyone!
In a k-drama rom-com, soju is your bestie, your frenemy, and your wingman all in one. It's your last line of defense and your one shot of hope. Soju never speaks, never judges, never attacks. It merely stays there, fully aware of its role as k-drama's most successful matchmaker. After all, it may take two to tango, but it takes three to fall in love: a man, a woman... and a bottle of soju.
Geonbae responsibly, everyone! One-shot!
If you enjoyed this article, you might want to read our other Saranghae Series articles: