A Night of Cheap Vodka in the Land of Soju

Published in Roads & Kingdoms on July 5, 2017

Vodka in Seoul

On Friday nights in college towns across the United States, one is sure to find house parties, or bars full of collegiate youngsters getting down and unwinding at the end of a long week.

In Seoul, things are a little different. Seoul has a “private room” culture. Due to the lack of floor space in the typical Korean home, people will rent space by the hour, for specific purposes. For example, a PC bang is your standard internet café, with snacks and maybe even hot food on offer so that you don’t have to stop gaming. There are many other kinds of bang, including noraebang (karaoke room), DVD bang, and café bang (individual rooms in cafés).

When Korean students want to unwind (particularly at the semester’s end, as is the case all May and early June) in a more social setting, well-lubricated with alcohol, they will join in with a bunch of their friends and rent out an entire bar or club for the evening, and they will charge admission to recoup their losses.

One night we were wandering the streets of Sinchon, a university-laden part of Seoul. As we walked down the road full of bars and restaurants and noraebang, we noticed different colored ribbons taped to the road, marking the directions to various parties. Each color was for a different party, organized by a different group at a different university. Some of them included text in English and Korean: “Ehwa [University] Nursing.” We didn’t follow any of the arrows, but we let some girls hanging out at the front door of one of the clubs lead us down to a basement, where we took a seat at the bar and ordered Cass, one of the three ubiquitous local beers, in the midst of green and red lights and glowing Finlandia advertisements.

Most of the tables reserved for Ehwa students were set with Finlandia-labeled bottles of various vodka cocktails. Over at the bar, the fare was a little different. We could see a bartender mixing juice and vodka out of a bottle labeled “vodka” in big letters and “Barton” in small letters. Barton Brands is a major American distiller of whisky, gin, run, schnapps, tequila, and vodka. It’s part of the Sazerac Company, which also sells Fireball and Southern Comfort. Barton is the kind of vodka you’d find on the bottom shelf, the kind a cash-strapped college student would reach for without a thought.

We ordered two shots straight. When it went down, we had nothing to say of the flavor. The signage of the bottle had it right: it was simply vodka. So there we were in the land of soju, drinking a cheap American version of Russia’s national drink. Maybe Korean and American college parties aren’t so different after all.

Read at R&K: A Night of Cheap Vodka in the Land of Soju

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