Are you familiar with Blackout Korea?
I wasn’t before I came here, and I might not be now, if the downstairs patio of my building wasn’t a perpetual Drunken Uncle convention. On any given morning, a number of sketchy-looking middle-aged men can be seen passed out in their chairs, surrounded by far too many empties, cigarette burning into an ever-lengthening ash in their hand. I asked my lovely host if this is common public patio behavior, and was directed to be above website.
It’s not a hugely common thing–I mean, it’s not like masses of people are sprawling about common areas in a drunken stupor EVERY day at 11, or even most days. But drinking culture here is definitely…vibrant. This is due mostly to the ridiculous cheapness of alcohol, and the complete lack of open container laws.
Soju is, hands-down, the cheapest way to artificially lose your inhibitions–$4 buys you almost 2 L, and depending on the brand, it’s 17-45% alcohol by volume (have fun guessing! I’ve yet to see a brand with this information listed on the label). It’s tasteless (maybe slightly sweet?), and colorless.
Foreigners tend to do really classy things, like throw a bottle in a bag for drink mixing out-and-about, while Koreans seem to be more likely to take it neat. When I hear the phrase “taken neat”, I tend to think about aged scotch in a clear glass tumbler, resting casually in the large, manly hand of someone with a well-groomed mustache and too much money, probably consumed in front of the fireplace of a warm and well-furnished master den as a blizzard rages outside. Soju, taken neat, is…not like that. More classy than mixing-on-the-go, less classy than anything served in a clear glass tumbler anywhere.
Soju is the mixer I suppose vodka tries to be–it just does it better. You’d have to mix SO MUCH Soju with something to detect that it was spiked at all, and it gets thrown into everything. Anything sold in tiny convenience store bottles is fair game, beer is fair game (it’s really common to do that in restaurants), coffee is fair game (because who needs FourLoko?).
For those who want mixed drinks (in the most literal sense) on the tightest of budgets, convenience stores also have these little juice or coffee packs (similar in packaging to capri sun?) you can buy for $1. And, because convenience stores here take that classification very seriously, they will pour your coffee/juice into a provided cup of ice for you (with lid and straw!)…and let you just go ahead and spike it right there on the counter. I cannot imagine how it could possibly be any more convenient. For you mathematicians out there, that means that if you buy the $1 juice/tea/coffee, and add 3-5oz of soju (at the price of about 6 cents an oz, from either the $4 1.8 L bottle or the $1 .5L bottle, which is small enough to fit into the average purse), you can get a pretty formidable drink for $1.18-$1.30. And because you’re in Seoul, you can carry that cheap drink with you and consume it all the live-long day. And because there are convenience stores at least every 2 blocks, you can do that forever and ever amen, without ever hitting a bar.
If Soju isn’t your thing, you can always hit a bar and order something familiar. Might I suggest a Hot6 and vodka (Hot6 is essentially Redbull)? Because everyone will, invariably, refer to the drink as a “hot sex and vodka”, and how funny you find this is a good gauge for how soon you should stop drinking.
The beer selection, barside or otherwise, is in general not awesome, but I say that coming from Austin, and we’re all hipster-proud of our craft brews. Heineken is always easy to find, Budweiser’s available, and there are lots of japanese beers to be had. These can all be bought relatively cheaply ($1-3 per can or bottle), in various quantities at (where else?) your local convenience store.
You can drink here, you can drink there, you can drink anywhere, but if it’s the weekend, you should probably be drinking in Hongdae (cheap and full of clubs, with a free park that is generally full of foreigners who are happy to gather and mingle and speak english) or Gangnam (like the song. More expensive than Hongdae, a bit classier, caters to a slightly older-but-no-more-responsible crowd). The subway system closes down around 1, and won’t reopen until 5:30, but there are cabs aplenty, and lots of options for staying out–the clubs don’t close, restaurants will be open and willing to give sobering patrons all the water they need, and you can buy a temporary stay at a public bathhouse for $10-$15.
And all of those options are better than blacking out with the drunken uncles.