According to figures released by the Korean Alcohol and Liquor Industry Association (Kalia), almost 84% of Korean women regularly consumed alcohol in 2010, compared to 50.5% in 1997, bringing the fairer sex to within 10 percentage points of Korean men—who are already seen to be the world’s biggest drinkers of hard liquor.
“It’s mainly due to increased income,” Kalia director Cho Surng-gie told the Wall Street Journal. “Since the 1980s, Korean women are more involved in the country’s workforce. That also means women are now more likely to take part in after-hours drinking sessions.”
Euromonitor research published earlier this year showed that South Koreans knock back almost 14 shots per week on average—more than twice as much as second-placed Russians.
The Philippines (5.4 shots), Thailand (4.5) and Japan (4.4) complete the top five of the world’s heaviest liquor drinkers.
Drinking liquor is very much a cultural aspect of Korean life, and is seen as a way to bond with colleagues, friends and family.
Kalia’s research found that a large majority of Korean people (71.8%) regard drinking as a necessary element of social life in Korea.
Given the popularity of knocking back soju—a local rice spirit that is usually consumed neat or alongside beer—in the peninsula, it is no surprise that K-pop star Psy joined forces recently with rapper Snoop Dogg to record the song “Hangover”, which celebrates binge drinking.
Kalia’s report stated that in 2012 alone, the per capita soju consumption reached 31 litres in Korea, equivalent to 88 bottles per person. If 80% of drinkers are considered moderate social drinkers, the volume consumed by the remaining 20% would be significantly larger.
According to Euromonitor figures, overall sales volume for spirits increased in 2012 by 2% to reach 1.3bn litres; of this, soju (which accounted for 96% of total spirit sales) and white sprits drove volume growth while whiskies were set on a downward path.
Although the category remains small, liqueurs registered the highest total sales volume growth of 97% over the previous year due to the popularity of bitter-based cocktails among younger consumers.
With so many women joining Korea’s drinking culture, liquor companies might expect to see a boom in fortunes; but Euromonitor’s prediction of a moderate 1% compound growth rate until 2017 suggests that female drinkers are taking the slack from their male counterparts.
Sympathy for a hangover
Indeed, data by Kalia has found that men are cutting back on their drinking over concern for their health, which has largely been brought about by the government’s efforts to instil a more responsible drinking culture, which began in 2011 with a public service advertising campaign.
But, with spirits playing such an important role in Korean life, there is much less stigma attached to alcohol-related misbehaviour in the peninsula, according to Kalia’s Cho Surng-gie.
“Acceptance of alcohol-related misbehaviour is a longstanding tradition in Korea,” Cho wrote in a recent blog post.
“For those who are not familiar with the Korean lifestyle, it may be difficult to understand the collective drinking culture, not to mention the leniency shown by superiors to employees who are absent or late for work due to a hangover. These customary practices will probably continue as long as soju remains Korea’s national drink.”