How to Drink Soju in South Korea: 7 Rules You Need to Know About!

How to Drink Soju in South Korea: 7 Rules You Need to Know About!

Nothing hits like a fresh shot of soju!

For me, some things in life just seem to come naturally together: munching on popcorn at the movies, having turkey for Thanksgiving/Christmas, and pairing a meal with a lovely shot of soju. I blame my burgeoning K-drama addiction for that last one. But then again, where is the lie?

Whenever we watch Korean dramas or movies where the characters are having a meal, is there anything more refreshing than hearing that “aaaaah” sound they make right after downing a shot of soju? It just sounds so refreshing and certainly makes ME feel like having a drink too! Plus, these scenes often precede highly entertaining plot points, be it a piggyback ride home for a swooning love interest or a hilarious morning-after hangover. 

What is soju?

For the uninitiated, soju is a traditional Korean liquor made with rice, wheat, or barley. It became super popular in the 2000s as the Hallyu Wave swept the world. While there ARE super potent versions of soju, a typical bottle contains about 17% (on average) alcohol by volume.  Often served chilled, soju is the perfect beverage to pair with a meal, especially Korean BBQ. 

Soju has a crisp texture with a slightly sweet aftertaste and leaves a subtle, warm sensation as it slides smoothly down your throat. It’s no wonder that soju is the drink of choice in South Korea! But, if you’ve ever paid attention to the way K-drama characters enjoy soju, you’ve probably noticed certain unspoken rules that get highlighted from time to time. 

Yes, while soju is a truly enjoyable drink, there are certain customs associated with drinking it. And while no one will begrudge a foreigner for breaking these protocols, it’s still good to know about them to avoid any potentially awkward situations (sans getting completely drunk, because soju can do that to you!). So here are the seven canonical rules of soju, as shown in your favourite K-dramas! 

Also read: The Dos and Don’ts of Eating At An Authentic Korean BBQ Restaurant

1. The oldest person or the one with the highest rank will pour the first shot

Image credit: Netflix

For Asians, the value of filial piety is a deeply-rooted tradition in our culture. Elders are often held in high regard and this is reflected most often during meal times. We allow our elders to take the first pick of a dish or serve them drinks on the side. However, when drinking soju, the rule is slightly flipped on its head. 

As seen in Itaewon Class when Saeroyi (PSJ) goes drinking with his staff, he’s usually the first one to pour them a shot. In fact, one of the only times this doesn’t happen is right at the beginning when he’s enjoying a meal with his father. In that scene, Saeroyi’s father is the one who pours his son a drink.

This gesture is often seen as an invitation from the elder/senior to “start the drinking session”. 

2. When receiving a drink, use both hands!

Image credit: Graham Hills

When someone is pouring you a drink, soju etiquette states that you should lift and hold your cup with both hands. If the shot glass is super small, as they usually are, hold it with your left palm and use your right hand to support it. This is especially important if the person pouring you a drink is much older than you or has a much higher ranking. 

In addition, it is also good to slightly bow your head when receiving a drink as a sign of respect. However, this rule can sometimes be passed up if you’re drinking with really close friends. That’s why sometimes in Korean dramas, you see the characters simply accepting a drink with just one hand. However, if you’re unsure if you’re “close” with the person you’re drinking with, just err on the side of caution. 

3. Don’t drink “in front” of your elders/superiors

Image credit: Netflix

So, now that you’ve politely received your shot of soju, what should you do? Should you straight up lift the glass to your lips and down it? WRONG! It has to do with posture. When you down a soju shot, you are often lifting your head up. If you do this facing your elder or superior, it is seen as you turning your nose up at them. Needless to say, that is extremely rude! 

While we can’t all have godly side profiles like Park Seo Joon, the correct thing to do is to turn to your side and drink it while shielding the glass with your other hand. Again, this rule can sometimes be voided when you’re drinking with close friends. 

4. You should down your first shot in one

While soju is typically a nice drink to enjoy sip by sip, you should down it in one go if it’s your first shot. After that though, feel free to sample the drink (and it’s many different varieties and flavours) at a leisurely pace. 

5. Never pour your own drink

Image credit: ecodallaluna

So remember how your elder/senior poured you your first shot? It’s actually not a one-off thing. Drinking soju is akin to a reciprocal game of boozy chess. Once you are offered a drink, you’ll be expected to pour one back. The rule of thumb is simple: you do NOT fill your own glass. Instead, if you spot an empty glass on the table (make sure it’s empty and not half full), offer to fill it up but not your own. 

Start from the eldest person (or most senior) and proceed down the hierarchy. And then, allow someone else at the table to fill your cup. The act of pouring your own drink is frowned upon in Korea and often considered rude. I’m sure you’ve noticed in K-dramas how sometimes someone gets drunk and starts pouring their own drink, only for someone else to snatch their bottle away to do it for them! As incredibly as it sounds, that’s actually being polite! 

6. When pouring a drink, also use both hands! 

Image credit: Netflix

Were you expecting anything less? When pouring a drink for someone, it is always polite to use both hands. Since soju bottles are often pretty small, the typical way to do it is to hold the bottle with one hand, and place the other hand either below your elbow or slightly above your wrist.  Just like the rule about receiving drinks, this rule can be ignored when drinking with close friends. 

Also read: Eating in South Korea: Korean Dining Etiquette 101

7. If you have to reject a drink, do it politely

While it is generally frowned upon to reject a drink (especially from a senior), there are ways to get out of a sticky situation. If you’re on medication, have allergies, or you simply need to drive that day/night, politely inform your drinking mate that you need to watch your limit. Most people would understand, though they may be slightly disappointed. 

Bonus point: Feel free to play the soju cap game 

Image credit: Buzzfeed Video

While this isn’t exactly a “rule” per say, it is one of the most common drinking games in Korea. Most soju bottles are made with a metal cap that twists off easily. What you can do is twist the “tail” of the cap into a spiral and everyone at the table takes a turn flicking it. 

Whoever breaks the tail has to take a shot of soju. To up the ante, my friends and I would usually try to create a monster shot. Where every time the tail is flicked, a little bit more soju (or beer) is added to a giant cup on the table. The lucky person to break the tail has to drink it! 

And there you have it! Seven canonical rules of soju as seen in K-dramas! While many of these rules don’t apply when you’re drinking with your close friends, they are still super important to remember if you want to be polite when drinking with others! All that’s left to do now is to shout “ganbae” (which means bottoms up)! 

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.


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