In this edition of the Tipsy Traveller's Guide to Globally Inspired Cocktails we revisit an old stomping ground, Seoul, South Korea. In constant cultural tension between innovation and tradition, Seoul navigates this contrast elegantly. Ubiquitous and with a rich heritage, the Korean spirit of Soju is a cultural icon that showcases the best of both worlds.
When thoughts on “alcohol” and “international” overlap, it’s inevitable that my time in South Korea comes to mind. By volume, the bulk of the alcohol consumed in my lifetime was consumed in Seoul, a testament to the abundance of occasions that led to opening up a bottle (or a few) of Korea’s ubiquitous national spirit - soju.
The nuance around drinking soju is as diverse as the variety of occasions I found myself enjoying it. A drink something in taste between sake and vodka, soju is traditionally served in shot glasses and a variety of decorum as well. With considerations for who is pouring, which hands are used to pour, and which direction drinks are consumed there’s a lot to keep in mind. While I’ll leave explanations of the nuances of Korean drinking culture to the experts, suffice to say over a multitude of Korean barbecue meals with ever-flowing soju on hand, I became a quick study.
Largely regarded as an insular society, as an outsider, I unsurprisingly found most of my salient memories of my time there began with sharing soju with friends. I found the most enthusiastic response from strangers when introduced alongside an attempt to recognize Korean culture on my own; either a joke in Korean or a deft shake of a soju bottle indicating an experienced consumer. I never felt the locals were exclusionary in nature, but instead increasingly protective of their own culture among a growing trend of globalization. Like a mother tiger - protective? Yes, but ultimately warm and receptive when met with good intentions and a good nature.
To speak to soju’s versatility is to speak to all the reasons why soju has won the hearts (and glasses) over of the Korean people. Soju pairs equally well with fresh seafood or alongside seared pork belly and fermented pepper sauce, as a camp-side spirit to scare away the cold or boozy pick-me-up before engaging in electric Seoul nightlife. With a smooth taste and price averaging under $2 a bottle, it’s no surprise that soju finds a welcome home on so many occasions.
I recall a discussion once with someone that posited public drinking in Korea was an affront against Korean culture. As both an active and passive participant, seeing soju shared on the bank of the Han Gang River as fireworks shot overhead, or clinking bottles of soju on the beach of Busan amidst a backdrop of waves crashing and music playing - how could you say this wasn’t Korean culture? Needless to say, when it came to soju, I was a fan. Whether it be trying soju in a shot glass with tuna eye during a company dinner or punctuating an evening with a soju bomb - its rich tradition is ever-evolving, and one thing is for certain, there’s nothing boring here.
In trying to “find home” among the foreignness of the Seoul cityscape I recall some taxi cab wisdom shared to me by a driver on my way home from a Seoul pub, “If a monk is unhappy with the monastery he must leave, the monastery is on the mountain, the mountain cannot change, but the monk can.” In essence, the message is that if you aren’t finding a situation ideal for you, if you can’t change the situation to suit you, you need to change yourself to suit it. Similarly, I found my team in Korea was largely spent learning to adapt to a distinctly “new” place. While other locales were prefaced with some education in language and culture, Korea was my first foray into a truly foreign environment. Though, many years later, I can’t recall what prompted the taxi cab conversation, I can say that the words still sit with me. You aren’t moving the mountain of Korean culture, but if you can learn to navigate it, you’ll find a welcome home.
Through my time in Korea, among dozens of stories (and proportionately numbered hangovers) I met countless friends, enjoyed incredible food and drink, and got to fully enjoy in the lifeblood of my one-time-home. In thinking back, I’m reminded of a “go-to” drink taught to me by a fellow foreigner from America,“it was passed down to me, so I’ll pass it down to you”, and while it was a simple (but tasty) affair of soju, Milkis, and Fanta Orange (glibly named the Korean Orange Creamsicle). This is my take on a more mature approach - noting progression in life, as well as bartending skill, it is my pleasure to introduce, the Seoul Sunshine:
1 oz Orange Liqueur
1 Bar Spoon Condensed Milk
2-3 Dashes Orange Bitters
Shake vigorously with Ice
Top off with tonic water
Garnish with orange peel