Drinking Culture: British Vs. Korean

Drinking Culture: British Vs. Korean

Both South Korea and England have prominent drinking cultures. England is infamous for its binge drinking, and alcohol consumption is significant in Korean work and social life.It is very common to see alcohol, youth and binge-drinking related problems on the front page of British newspapers. This 2014 research found that 55% of males and 53% of females drank more than the recommended daily allowance, atleast once a week. Due to the rise of alcohol awareness and education in school, alcohol related problems seem to be decreasing gradually with only 3.8% for adults having harmful drinking habits.

In comparison, drinking seems to be on the rise in South Korea. The source of Korea’s drinking habit is mostly attributed to culture, as 71.8% of people regard drinking to be necessary of social life. New research in 2014 reported that the average South Korean drinks more shots a week than any other country. The average South Korean drinks 13.7 shots a week, which is more than double of Russia (6.3 shots a week on average). The United Kingdom ranked 10th at 2.3 shots a week.

There are interesting differences between British drinking and Korean drinking. These observations, does not intend on competing these two countries against each other. As everything was witnessed from social settings of 20-somethings, the variation of style and situation will be somewhat limited. These are merely comparisons of cultural differences. It is also important to note that these observations do not represent all drinkers in each respective country.



British: The most common place to drink in public is the pub in England. Every small town will have at least one, while slightly larger urban areas will additionally have bars and clubs. Pubs, bars and clubs have completely different atmospheres.  Pubs are open for most of the day, as well as late at night. They are the cosiest of the three, and often serve beer and food. In most drinking venues, there will be sitting and standing areas, but in comparison to Korea there is more open space for standing or dancing. Rather than sitting at a table in Korea, Brits can lean or stand with a drink near the bar, or at standing tables. Bars and clubs are only for evening drinking, and will have more open space to allow natural movement and mingling. Even drinking at a party or a private event, seating would not be necessary, and most people will be socialising on their feet.


Korean: First of all, a drinking venue in Korea (술집, literally meaning ‘alcohol house’) looks very similar to a restaurant (for a reason I will touch on later). You must be seated at a table to drink, and there will not be a place to stand as the drinks are brought to the table by a server. Although the place is public, the experience will feel private, as the party will remain seated throughout the drinking event and will not stand to meet other people. A lot of places offer mini-rooms or dividers to have a private space, so you can’t even see the other people. However, certain clubs called ‘나이트’ (literally ‘night’) are designed specifically to meet new people and mingle. Drinking always happens seated, even at private parties. Drinks are had at a tables with chairs or seated on the floor. At a British house party, people are all standing in small circles where you can drift between conversation, but at a Korean house party everyone is sat in a big circle, with the communual drinks at the centre.

Alcohol Choice


British: England does not have a single national alcoholic beverage, although there are certain trends following the occasion and environment. Beer and cider is the main day/afternoon drink of choice at a pub. Cold beer, such Guiness and Carlsberg, is served in a wide pint glass on tap. Cider is similar to beer, but it is made from fruit. Cider (such as the popular Magner’s apple, or Kopparberg’s strawberry) has low alcohol content and tastes refreshing, so it is the perfect summer pub drink. However, the stronger drinks often take place at bars and clubs where there are a variety of cocktails, shots and mixers on offer. Gin has been elected the nation’s favorite spirit by the middle class, although this is often mixed with tonic water, Coke, juice or energy drink. Shots cannot be sipped or held on to, they must be consumed in one swift motion.


Korean: If Korea was a machine, it would run on 소주 (‘Soju’). The most popular brands are ‘처음처럼’ (‘like the first time’) and ‘참이슬’ (‘fresh dew’), but there is a huge variety of brands, each having their own unique bitter-sweet taste. Although the soju is poured as a shot, people mostly sip the shot unless you are in a situation to down it (see ‘games’). For those who do not like the taste, soju with fruit flavours have been released such as grapefruit and yuzu. 호프 (Korean beer) and 막걸리 (‘Makgeolli’ a Korean rice wine) are secondary options. Wine and Cocktails are not as common, but are mainly served in larger bars or modern restaurants. Trendy modern bars in Seoul are constantly improving their cocktail menu, and there is an impressive variety of traditional Korean flavours and fruity tastes.

Speed and Time


British: The length of the drinking session depends on the situation. If the priority is to relax and enjoy a drink, normally people can stay in one pub for hours. The pub’s primary drink, beer, does not have a high alcohol content and is drunk slowly, so the pub will often have entertainment such as a TV, pool table or darts. However, drinking often occur as a prelude to another activity, such as going to a party or club, to dance or to meet people. The night’s entertainment begin once one is drunk, so people drink as much as possible, as fast as they can. The first 1-2 hours will be dedicated to drinking, and it is always the beginning of the event when the most alcohol consumption occurs, unlike Korea.


Koreans: Drinking takes place consistently and constantly for a long period of time, normally several hours, which are divided into ‘rounds’. Each 차 ‘round’ has different characteristics.

1차: Dinner with a side of Soju at a delicious restaurant.

2차: Move to a 술집, 호프집 or bar, drinking more, eat more (see ‘food’), talk and play games (see ‘games’).

3차: Probably merrily drunk at this point. Move to 노래방 ‘karaoke‘ or club and drink while singing.

4차: Can continue to drink till dawn and eat ‘hangover’ stew. Get the first train.

This process is very long and sometimes people have naps while others are drinking, and wake up later to continue the drinking. The subway (which is the main transportation in Seoul) is closed at midnight and re-opens at around 5am. Most people have to stay out drinking because they have to be occupied before 5am.



British: Eating in not necessary in a drinking situation, unless one is drinking wine with a meal, or at a special event where they serve hors d’oeuvres. Pub snacks such as nuts or crisps (snacks) can be bought at the pub too, but it is not essential to eat while drinking. Finger food can be served at parties, but not many people will eat the food at a party. However, some pubs also function as restaurants during the day. Although it may not be sophisticated, you can buy delicious traditional meals like Sunday Lunch or English Breakfast.


Korean: The Korean drinking culture is the opposite to Britain, as drinks are always accompanied by food called 안주 (‘anjoo’). The limits of what can or cannot be called ‘anjoo’ is very loose, but generally speaking it is lighter than a Korean traditional meal. There are popular pairings such as 막걸리 ‘Makgeolli’ and 보쌈 ‘pork belly’ or 전 ‘vegetable pancake’ , and ‘치맥’ fried chicken and beer. Soju has a bitter aftertaste so normally the side dish for soju is quiet strong and can even be spicy, like stew or seafood. At a club or kareoke room,  they may serve more sophisticated ‘anjoo’, like fruit arranged beautifully. For some, the best part of drinking is the anjoo.


British-drinking-neknominationsBritish: Compared to other western counties, England does not have many drinking games. While America is known for beer pong etc, British games mainly involve talking and normally the content of the games are based on personal information or opinion, such as ‘Never Have I Ever’ and ‘Would You Rather’. The penalty is often unpleasant such as drinking a very large amount of alcohol in one go, or drinking an unpleasant concoction. ‘Neknominations’ became a popular game in 2014. The name of the game is a combination of the word ‘neck’ (as in to drink an alcoholic drink very quickly in one go) and ‘nominate’, where friends would drink a large amount of alcohol very quickly and challenge their friends on social media. After some deaths and alcohol induced accidents caused by the trend, the game is no longer played today, but is still remembered as a viral influential drinking game.



Korean: Like food, games are necessary in a drinking environment. The games are loud, fast-paced, challenging and involve physical movement too. Unlike other drinking games, Korean drinking games test memory and cognitive thinking. Smart or sober people can play the games well, but the less intelligent (or drunk) are caught a lot, and thus must drink more. The biggest difference between Korean and British drinking games is the content. While British games are rude or controversial, the games in Korea are conservatively cute. A group of adults shouting “Carrot, carrot, carrot”, and “Strawberry” is unheard of in England.

Drunk Behaviour

Despite the obvious common behavioral traits of drunks, such as slurred speech, imbalance, shouting, everyone has their own drunken habits. Although drinking can be fun and sometimes necessary, drinking excessively can be dangerous. Being drunk can be harmless most of the time, but it is important to be aware of your limits.


British: I have noticed that the Brits are much more active than Koreans when they are drunk. People wander around, are very physically affectionate, or mindlessly dance. As mentioned previously about the lack of eating, it is a ritual for drunk people to seek food when they are drunk.  Normally this consists of cheap junk food such as pizza, kebab or cheesy chips.

korean-drunk-drinking-cultureKorean: Koreans may get louder when drunk, until they suddenly become quiet and slowly go to sleep. This may be due to the length of the drinking session or attributed to the fact that drinkers sit while drinking, or maybe even the biological breakdown effects of soju in the body, but it seems more common than in England to see sleeping people in public.

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