North Korea & Alcohol: What We Learned

Getting drunk in North Korea is like anywhere else. You drink, get drunk, hangover follows. The stages are all the same. There are a few quirks though.

On the first night in Pyongyang, after checking in to Koryo Hotel (our home for four nights) we were brought to the revolving restaurant atop the hotel for our welcome meal, which was much needed considering the aforementioned “chicken” burger had left us all a little peckish.

As the revolving restaurant cranked into operation, we found ourselves slowly rotating high above the near pitch black city as our North Korean waitress led us to our tables in the empty restaurant. The chicken made a happy return to the plate, this time in the form of a salad, while soup preceded and some sort of custard dessert completed the course. Like any meal out, it’s normal to have something to wash it all down.

Each of our meals in the country was accompanied by at least one free drink, alcoholic or otherwise. I happily ordered my first North Korean beer, while Kathy, upon finding out no wine was available, went the cider route. Or at least we thought she had.

I mean, we weren’t expecting Bulmers but, equally, we weren’t expecting ‘Fresh Brown Sugar Cider’ to be the DPRK version of Coca Cola. Lesson One: Cider isn’t cider.Fresh Brown Sugar CiderOn our second night in the hotel, a number of our group had a few drinks in the hotel bar, which also brewed its own drink. The mission – drink each of the North Korean beers. This was of course a simple task as there were only two options – the aptly titled ‘Dark Beer’ and ‘Light Beer’. Does what it says on the tin really.

Again, with no wine on offer, Kathy reverted to Vodka and white. A perfectly normal order on this side of the world but one which returns a blank face when standing in the Koryo Hotel bar, as I learned.

While the waitress, who did speak some English, understood the vodka part of the order, the “white lemonade” threw her. A quick glance at the fridge, I quickly realised they stocked Sprite so I amended my order to ‘”vodka and a bottle of Sprite.”

The barmaid returned another blank stare.

‘Perhaps it’s my accent’, I thought. Repeating my order, I pointed to the bottle of Sprite in the hope that the barmaid would realise what I wanted. And she did… kind of.

Setting aside the bottle of Sprite while she poured a measure of vodka, the barmaid then proceeded to open the Sprite and pour it all down the sink. She then handed me the vodka and the empty bottle.

That’s right, she had literally served me a vodka and a bottle of Sprite. I guess she did get the order linguistically correct, at least.

Dining out one of the nights with Jake, Christine and Justin.

As we dissected the day’s events, our guides joined us. Mr Lee, the aforementioned Westlife fan, ordered a beer, while Ms Pong ordered a juice and Mr Kong ordered a glass of milk. A perfectly normal request in North Korea it seems.

It was only during this sit down that it emerged that Mr Kong was a fan of the song ‘Danny Boy’ and asked Kathy and I to sing a verse of it. Much like my knowledge of Westlife songs, I don’t really know the lyrics of Danny Boy past the first few lines. We left Mr Kong disappointed as he drank his milk.

We ended up playing a few drinking games with the guides as the night progressed, although after a while they just left us alone. The game of ‘Kings’ was probably the tipping point. Some of the other North Koreans in the bar enjoying a few beers seemed bemused.

We did also enjoy a few of the bars around the city, where we once again learned that North Korea doesn’t bother with branding.DSC_0118_1On our visit to Taedonggang No 3 Beer Bar, which served a selection of local beers, the drinks menu was quite straight forward. You’ve got the rather handily named ‘Beer 1’, ‘Beer 2’, ‘Beer 3’ and so on through to ‘Beer 7’.

It was while drinking my ‘Beer 2’ that we suffered our first instance of power failure, with the whole bar left in darkness as the electricity cut. The handful of North Koreans in the bar didn’t flinch, seemingly used to such an occurrence.

The 7 taps visible along the bar.
‘Beer 2’

On another night, having obviously picked up on the group’s keen interest in alcohol, Mr Kong asked us if we were interested in visiting one of Pyongyang’s newest cocktail bars. The answer was a resounding yes. It also turned out to be our second experience of the electricity cutting out. Thankfully it did return, allowing us to see what North Korean wonders were on offer.DSC_0137_2The bar’s name escapes me, unfortunately, but it was located in down town Pyongyang in a part of the city that actually seemed out of place as it had a number of brightly lit high rise buildings. This part of the city actually felt modern.DSC_0125_1We were told the bar had been visited by Kim Jong-un himself and the staff showed us the seat he sat in, which we duly photographed. It’s the one on the right.DSC_0136_2The three barmaids were the only occupants when we arrived to what felt like a more upmarket bar. Some of the drinks on their shelves included Jameson and Baileys, which surprised me.

It wasn’t just the availability of Western drinks that added to the modernity of the place though. To take our orders the barmaids produced menus on tablets, which seemed to be running on some form of North Korean software.DSC_0128_2

DSC_0130_1Surprisingly, the cocktails didn’t have generic names like ‘Cocktail 1’ as expected, but instead included the likes of ‘Tequila Sunrise’ and ‘Skrew Driver’, which tasted about how they taste at home although maybe with a bit more of a kick.DSC_0138_2

We enjoyed a couple of the cocktails on offer and one the gang, Nick, even took a seat at the piano and played us a few tunes, which the barmaids also seemed to enjoy. Whether they actually recognised the songs is another issue.

All in all, while the range of drinks we’re used to might not be the same, and the ordering process may not be as straight forward, I can’t deny that on those (very) rare days when the sun shines brightly across Ireland, and Bulmers seems like the perfect way to quench the thirst, I can’t help but think about a nice glass of ‘Beer 2’… or that wasted bottle of Sprite.

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