The Korea Herald


[Weekender] The rules of drinking alone

Koreans are increasingly venturing solo to bars for a quiet moment to enjoy alcohol

By 두루미

Published : Jan. 6, 2017 - 18:56

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All lawyer Kim Eun-hye, 29, wanted was to be alone with a glass of wine after a draining day of consulting with clients, wading through legal paperwork, sitting through a tense office dinner and losing a case.

Instead of heading home to an empty fridge, Kim decided to drop by Goya, a quiet bar near her house in Yeonnam-dong.

“I guess I come here when I feel like having a nice drink, but don’t have the energy to engage in forced conversation with people who can’t offer good advice,” she said, ordering a bottle of red wine. “They let me keep it here. I don’t finish the whole thing in one sitting.”

Tired Koreans have begun to carve out time for themselves in a trend called “honsul,” or drinking solo. After decades of frenzied economic development, the country has the second-longest working hours among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, constant online connectivity and an entrenched culture of putting community before the individual. 
A lone beer glass sits at Carta 19, a bar overlooking the Yeonnam-dong neighborhood. (Rumy Doo/The Korea Herald) A lone beer glass sits at Carta 19, a bar overlooking the Yeonnam-dong neighborhood. (Rumy Doo/The Korea Herald)

Students are no exception to the fad. Kang Han-bit, a college senior, who is searching for a job ahead of graduation, said craft beer bar Jooyooso is his favorite honsul spot in front of Korea University.

“I like to sit there and think,” said Kang, who is partial to dark beers, in particular the brands Guinness and Kozel. “I’m with people all the time, in class, with a study group, with my career counselor, with friends. So (when drinking alone), I turn off my phone and just sit and listen to music.”

Spots conducive to honsul have popped up in some of Seoul’s picturesque neighborhoods.

“We welcome those who want to drink alone,” reads a sign in front of Jamkkan, a tiny eatery in Yeonnam-dong. A bookstore titled “Book By Book” in Sangam-dong allows customers to browse while drinking.

The key to the perfect honsul spot, according to attorney Kim, is a place that is “not too elegant, where I would feel self-conscious, but not too shabby, where I would feel sorry for myself.”

“We get people of every kind,” said Chun Se-young, the bartender at Goya and a former rapper. “Some sit quietly. Some people talk about their problems. One customer, an artist, always shows me his work.”

Chun said he sometimes needs to pour himself a drink after lengthy conversations with customers. “There are people who talk about themselves endlessly... but it’s OK. I understand. They come here to unload and I like that.”

Others solo drinkers purchase alcohol from convenience stores to enjoy at home. University student Lee Eun-jin sneaks beer into her dormitory to drink while watching Netflix in bed, she said.

Sales of imported wine and beer with lower alcohol content -- people drinking alone tend to avoid hard liquor -- have steadily risen from 13 percent in 2014 to 29 percent in 2015 and 33 percent in 2016, according to Statistics Korea.

“The trend of deciding to do something individually, purely for oneself, signifies a sort of growth in society,” Jung Do-eon, a Seoul National University Hospital professor told Korean media in November. “In an adolescent society, the group is more important. The focus of our society is now moving from the group to the individual.”

Rules and risks

“It’s not really drinking alone if you’re on your smartphone,” said business consultant and avid honsul proponent Park Jung-min, 30.

Park said he clears his table of everything but his drink -- usually vodka or whiskey -- and a snack when he is drinking alone.

“I don’t even watch television. I try to be completely free of electronic devices, and focus on the sensation of drinking and the taste of food.”

Less hard-core solo drinkers said they use the time to catch up on their favorite shows, news and social media updates.

While some say people avoid getting drunk when drinking alone, others argue the lack of inhibition results in less restraint. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety last month, 25 percent of those engaging in the trend said they drank more frequently since beginning to do so alone.

“Those drinking alone might have depression or anxiety, choosing to run away from their problems,” Lee Soo-jung, a neuropsychiatry professor, told Korean media. “It could lead to dependency if one is not careful.”

By Rumy Doo (