Although beer has been gaining popularity in recent years, soju remains the drink of choice for most Koreans because of its availability and relatively cheaper price. Everything I know about the Korean drinking culture I learned from going on hoesik while staying in Seoul, the capital of Korea, a few years back. If you watch Korean dramas, you would probably notice scenes in which office employees would head to a dinner place to eat, have a beer, then move to another place for round two with soju, and end at a noraebang (Korean karaoke room) for other alcoholic drinks. That’s hoesik for you. Hoesik literally means “dinner with co-workers,” but for the most part it is an eating and drinking party involving rounds of alcohol at different venues. The Korean drinking culture reflects the country’s social structure, traditions and lifestyle. Most foreigners are quite hesitant to join hoesik, especially if they see how strong drinkers Koreans are and how the so-called drinking party goes on through the night. During my first hoesik with my Korean and foreign journalist friends, everyone had to fill a beer glass to the brim, drop a shot of soju and down it in one go. And that was just the beginning. Imagine doing this every week! It would surely make foreigners find excuses to bow out. But once a person understands the meaning behind it, appreciation kicks in. You see, drinking in Korea is more than just chugging bottles after bottles of alcohol. Drinking is a way to get to know someone. Offering someone a glass of maekju (beer) or a shot of soju is like an invitation to open up. Going to hoesik involves learning the Korean drinking etiquette. The Korean society is quite strict when it comes to drinking manners. This is why parents would really spend time teaching their children who have come of age how to drink. Drinking manners How one pours and receives drinks are important. Hierarchy also plays a big role in drinking. Koreans usually identify the “higher” person in the relationship — someone older or someone with a higher position — and defer to them accordingly. When a younger person gives a drink an older person, s/he has to offer it respectfully, with two hands holding the bottle. Raising the glass or pouring alcohol with one hand signifies that that someone has seniority. When receiving drinks from a much older person, hold the glass with two hands — the right hand holding the glass, the left hand supporting the glass bottom — and bow the head slightly, saying, “Gamsahamnida (Thank you).” After receiving the drinks, hit the bottle and put it down. If a senior person is pouring, don’t drink yet until someone has poured the senior a shot. When all the glasses are full, raise your glass, say “Geonbae!” and drink. It is customary to drink the first drink in one shot. While chugging the shot, turn your body away from the elder person, and cover your mouth and glass with one hand. It is rude to have an empty glass. When it is already empty, the drinker should hand the glass back to the person who poured the drink for him/her. In exchange, the drinker would pour him/her a shot. Refusing a drink is considered rude, unless you have absolute and airtight reason. Saying “I don’t like soju” won’t cut it; you need a better excuse than that. You can either accept the drink and discreetly get rid of it, or use the Black Knight or Black Rose. As the name suggests, the Black Knight is someone who can come to your rescue and drink it for you. Using this alternative resort also means that that person can get a wish from you. The leading spirit Although beer has been gaining popularity in recent years, soju remains the drink of choice for most Koreans because of its availability and relatively cheaper price. Statistics show that more than three billion bottles were consumed in South Korea in 2004, with one person drinking an average of 13.7 shots per week. In 2006, an average Korean approximately consumed 90 bottles of soju in a year. Soju, which means “burned liquor,” traces its roots to the Goryeo dynasty. After the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, the Yuan introduced the technique of distilling arak, which they learned from the Persians, to the Korean Peninsula. They set up distilleries around Gaegyeong. When the Yuan Mongols established their logistics base in Andong, it also became the center of home-brewed liquor. To make soju, the winemaker would crush and mix the dried grains with water. Then, the mixture would be filtered and fermented for 15 days. The aged liquor would then be boiled in a sot (cauldron), topped with soju gori, a two-storied distilling apparatus with a pipe. The result would be a clear, colorless alcoholic beverage with about 16 to 53 percent alcohol by volume. Traditionally, soju is made from rice, wheat and barley. However, during the Korean War, with the diminishing supply, distilling liquor using rice was banned. Hence, the soju producers found alternative ingredients such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and tapioca and mixed them with flavorings and sweeteners, resulting in diluted soju with lower alcohol content. Even when the ban was lifted in the late 1990s, most producers have stick to the alternative starches. By the 2000s, soju began to dominate the global alcohol market, with Jinro leading the pack, followed by Chum Churum and Good Day. All three made it to the Top 100 Global Spirits Brands in 2016. Since its launch in 1924, Jinro has been consistently named the number one soju brand in Korea and has played an important role in establishing and evolving Korean drinking culture. Currently, Jinro soju holds more than 50 percent of the Korean market share. Globally, Jinro has been the world’s best-selling soju for 12 consecutive years, with over 71 million cases sold. In 2016, its Chamisul soju reached the one trillion won (US$882 million) sale mark, with 1.7 billion bottles sold since it was launched in 1998. Make it light With Jinro’s superb taste and quality, pushed by the Hallyu phenomenon, the spirit of Korea has reached Philippine shores. More and more Filipinos appreciate Korean drinks, especially with the renaissance of Hallyu in the Philippines. And this is a trend that Hite Jinro Company wants to capitalize on by introducing a new variant exclusively for the Philippine market. Drinking is an integral part of Korean culture. “Based on our market survey, the Filipino people like to drink, but they don’t want to get drunk immediately. They want to have fun and enjoy their time with friends and family. So, they prefer drinks that are light and easy to consumer. This is the reason we are launching Jinro Light,” shared Jinro’s representative Jason Yoon during its public launch held at Dulo MNL, located in Poblacion, Makati City, recently. He explained that the new soju variant is an extension of Jinro 24. It is part of their effort to further expand into the vast Southeast Asian market. In 2017, a big chunk of soju sales, amounting to US$8.8 million, came from Southeast Asian countries. That was about 180 percent growth from 2015. Unlike regular soju, Jinro Light only has a 17 percent alcohol content, which gives a refreshing kick but is mild enough for an extended drinking experience. “With Jinro Light, the Filipino people can try a new drinking culture. Aside from expanding our brand and offering more options, we want to show the Filipino people the Korean way of drinking,” said Yoon. He explained that the Filipino and Korean drinking cultures are quite different from each other. “In Korea, we drink soju with food. But in the Philippines, when you have dinner, you just have dinner. Then, you drink afterwards. We like to drink our soju straight, but most Filipinos want to drink it as cocktails, slushies or with beer.” Your drink menu While there is no right or wrong way to enjoy soju, there are Korean drinking traditions that prevail. There’s the so-maek, a combination of soju and maekju (beer). Fill a mug with beer, then pour in some soju, stir and drink. Another thing to try is the poktanju or bomb drink. Drop a shot glass of soju into a pint of beer and chug it down. This is quite similar to the Japanese sake bomb. One of my favorite mixes is the yogurt soju. Mix soju, Yakult and Chilsung cider (you can substitute this with Sprite). You can also try the cojinganmaek, which is a good combination of soju, cola and beer. Stack a shot of soju and a shot of cola inside a cup of beer, and you’ll have a unique drinking experience. Do you like Melona, the Korean ice cream? You can mix it with soju and cider for that creamy booze. Need a little perk-me-up? Combine soju, Gatorade and Red Bull (or any energy drink) for that energizing drink. Love coffee? Bring them on. The combination of soju and coffee reminds us of Irish coffee. Like something fruity? Mix your favorite fruit juice with soju. It is like your typical Screwdriver, only you would been using soju instead of vodka. Impress your drinking buddies with subak soju. Get a whole subak (watermelon), cut it in half and start scrapping its fruit from the shell. Pour soju, add some ice, then blend well. Now, you have the perfect party drink. What’s drinking without some anju (small bites) Koreans match their alcohol with certain food. For beer, there’s chicken. This combination is popularly known as chi-maek. Makgeoli (rice wine) is usually paired with jeon (Korean savory pancake). For soju, drink it with samgyeopsal (grilled meat). But the clean taste profile of soju, it can also been paired with our pulutan choices such as sisig, crispy pata and what have you. Whatever your preference is, just raise your glass and bottoms up.