How do you drink somaek? Korea's favourite cocktail is a K-drama staple – and how exactly you mix the soju with beer sparks plenty of fun debate at parties

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Squid Game may be over (for now) but South Korea keeps churning out the hits. The latest is Single’s Inferno, a dating show that’s something of a mix between Love Island and Terrace House. Since launching on Netflix in December 2021, the show has taken the world by storm and ranked among the top three programmes in Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Malaysia.

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Of course, it’s not just K-dramas and K-pop groups that have soared in popularity over the years. So too has the country’s culinary delights, from Korean barbecue to fried chicken. It’s a staple of many Korean programmes to show friends and couples bonding over a somaek cocktail during meals, too.

Not many viewers know, however, what exactly somaek is, or might get it confused with chimaek (the combination of chicken and beer) popularised by another Korean show, My Love from the Stars.

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At its heart, somaek is a simple mix of beer and soju, a Korean spirit traditionally made from the grains of rice, wheat or barley, which can range in alcohol by volume (ABV) from 17 per cent up to more than 50 per cent in extreme cases. The cocktail’s name is a straightforward portmanteau of soju and maekju (beer).

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Beer being poured over soju to make somaek. Photo: Shutterstock

There are no obvious origins for the drink. Accounts range from it being the invention of Korean salarymen looking to take the edge off their work weeks to the mix being an import brought by American military personnel looking to stiffen the light local beers.

Typically, the concoction is made in a similar fashion to other classic cocktails like the Boilermaker (a mix of whisky and beer) or the Irish Car Bomb (typically Baileys and Guinness). In this instance, soju acts as a base spirit and is poured into the glass first, which is then topped up with beer. Easy, right?

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Contestants an the South Korean Netflix show Single’s Inferno. Photo: Netflix

Well, maybe not. Variations abound. Sometimes somaek is made more like a Jägerbomb or a Depth Charge. In this instance, a shot of soju is poured separately and then dropped into a glass of beer. In Korea, this method of mixing the cocktail is called poktan-ju (which literally means “bomb alcohol”) and can be used to make all sorts of different cocktails, not just somaek.

As a popular cocktail in Korea, there’s also much debate about the precise details of how to make the best somaek. Often at drinking parties, half the fun is chatting about the possible combinations. Debates can rage around a bar table about the ideal ratio of beer to soju. In Korea, a generally accepted golden ratio for soju to beer is 3:7, but this can differ depending on the company, from gentle 1:9 mixes all the way up to more debilitating 50/50 combinations.

What brands you should use is another bone of contention. Jinro or Chum Churum soju? Hite or Cass beer? Or perhaps a more exotic foreign import like Budweiser or Hoegaarden?

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South Korean convenience stores are well-stocked with soju required for somaek. Photo: Shutterstock

When it comes to mixing the drink, some prefer to tap the side of the glass with chopsticks while others prefer to be more vigorous and stab a spoon to the bottom of the glass to mix things up. A different party trick is to mix the somaek as normal, then cover the top with a tissue or napkin and shake it together, as if the glass were a cocktail shaker.

How the shot of soju gets into the beer is another area of contention. As mentioned earlier, you can simply pour the beer on top of the soju, or drop a shot of soju into your beer, or you can get more creative. One method is to precariously balance your shot above your glass on a pair of chopsticks. You then hit your table and send the shot crashing into the beer. For those who find that all too straightforward – or who have perhaps downed one too many drinks already – there’s the more hardcore option of smacking the table with your head rather than your fist. We leave the method of choice to the reader’s discretion.

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