A man pours soju into a beer glass to make somaek, a popular local cocktail. (Korea Herald file photo)
When it comes to booze, Koreans know what they are dealing with. Just as the term “let’s have a meal” is often interchangeable with arranging a meeting, “let’s go for a drink” is roughly equivalent to socializing.
In the past, social meetings with alcohol had involved participants getting heavily drunk. This brought forth the birth of poktanju, or the bomb-drink, which refers to a cocktail of beer and liquors such as whiskey.
As its name suggests, its main goal is to bombard the drinker with a heavy dose of alcohol until he or she nearly passes out. This happened quite often as up until the 1990s and even early 2000s, social meetings with alcohol would generally lead to getting drunk.
Why do Koreans like to get drunk? Because they feel it is crucial when socializing with other people.
A widespread belief among Koreans is that a good way to make new friends is to get drunk together. The logic is that once a person gets drunk, he or she lets go of all pretenses and becomes completely honest. Seeing this truthful side of the person would help him or her become more relatable.
Kim Han-sung, 59, said that back when he started working at a bank in the early 1980s, he and his colleagues went out for a drink at least once a week to socialize.
“We believed that in order for us to really open up and become friends, we need to get totally drunk,” he said.
For young officer workers of the time, Kim said, poktanju was the cheap, ideal alternative to expensive drinks like whiskey, allowing them to get drunk at a cheaper price.
Experts say the consumption of alcohol plays a big role in how Koreans socialize.
Sociologist Yun Myung-hui, who teaches at Sogang University, called Korea a “connection-based society” in which alcohol is the medium.
“All societies have their own ‘drinking totem’ that helps them overcome separation and restore the sense of community,” Yun said in his paper titled “Alcohol connections in Korean society.”
According to his theory, a group within Korean society would demand its members to join its collective action of drinking in order to feel like he or she belongs. By partaking in the action shared by all other members of the group, one would consolidate the bond with others.
Over the past few years, the drinking trend has gradually shifted to enjoying the drink itself rather than merely getting completely drunk. Rather than adding a strong liquor like whiskey, more people are drinking somaek, a combination of beer and soju which is enjoyed for its “mild” taste.
Regardless of the drinking trend, alcohol consumption is still one of the most popular ways to grease up rusty relationships. The only difference between drinking somaek and traditional poktanju is being slightly drunk versus totally drunk.
“When I meet friends I haven’t seen in a long time, it can get a little awkward. After a drink or two, it feels just like the old days,” said Park Min-young, a 23-year-old college student.
Alcohol also helps when trying to thaw somewhat icy relationships, she added.
“With some alcohol, we share candid conversations and forget about petty arguments. We do silly things, talk about small everyday stuff and have a good old time,”
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)