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Distillations: Drinking Alone, Together at Tonight Soju Bar 

Wednesday, Jan 22 2014
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I came to Tonight Soju Bar because I don't know a damn thing about soju. Or much about Korea. You can learn a lot about another culture by what it drinks recreationally. But that doesn't mean you will.

Despite having the word "bar" in its name, Tonight Soju is a restaurant pretending to be a bar. The curse of my existence. Only one page of the four-page menu is devoted to drinks. The bar itself is a tiny thing in the back of the room, where no one sits. Instead, the space is reserved for restaurant-style seating. Worse from the point of view of a solitary drinker: The tables are often divided from each other by fabric, so it's difficult to interact with your neighbors. I was on my own.

Tonight Soju is a restaurant for people who like soju, not for people who want to learn about it. There aren't a variety of sojus there to choose from — you can't have a flight or sample different bottles. As the very nice waitress went out of her way to explain to me, all the soju is made on premises in specifically sized batches, and so you buy it by the batch. It generally comes in metal tea kettles, and a kettle of soju contains about 10 shots. A soju/fruit juice mix (pineapple, peach, raspberry ...) generally contains about 15 shots. The house specialty is soju served in a small watermelon: twice the servings, and if you manage to finish them all your refill is half-off.

Again, it's a terrible system for a lone drinker — but it's not designed for lone drinkers. The assumption is that people will come in groups and drink together.

The assumption wasn't wrong; I was just out of place. Everybody else there was part of a group, and they all seemed to be celebrating, clinking glasses, taking pictures. "He's Mr. Dildo!" shouted a man at the table to my right. "Take a picture with the dildo!" I looked over, but saw nothing held other than their glasses, and a picture was snapped of a perfectly ordinary toast.

The table to my left was using an iPad to play a drinking game — a whole new frontier that I had never considered. Finally, a reason to get one. Unless the game is available on my phone.

Americans generally think of bars as catering to lone drop-ins off the street, wearing trench coats, with stories to tell, but WASP culture is highly unusual in its emphasis on personal privacy and distance. In India I kept running into locals who were deeply worried about the way I'd sit by myself. In Cuba I was invited to the homes of locals who were concerned that I didn't have a group. In Russia, in Colombia ... to varying degrees, my assertion that I just wanted to sit alone and nurse a drink until I was ready to talk to people was rejected as unhealthy in all of these places.

They're not wrong. But in America, where we are so often alone, how are we going to go drink with people if bars don't connect us with other solitary folk?

The soju tasted strongly of alcohol, but has about half the ABV of vodka — so I drank a lot of it. The chicken wings were delicious, and the spicy garlic ribs first burned my tongue literally, then figuratively. Altogether it was a good combination. Worth sharing.

The table to my right disintegrated into a vicious, if funny, argument over how to pay the check. "Mr. Dildo" appeared to have left early. The table to my left also began arguing: The drinking game demanded that two of them change shirts, but it was a girl and a guy and she didn't want to. I smirked: The last time I demanded that a girl and a guy change tops at a bar, they did it without a moment's pause.

That was in Colorado, if you're wondering. At a very different bar, on a night after which — if memory serves — every couple present soon broke up. I met a woman who claimed to be some kind of doomed psychic, and she gave me a very important message while insisting that I would never remember it, or her name. She was absolutely right. I have no idea.

That was a party where strangers mingled freely across boundaries. Tonight Soju will probably never see its like: From its architecture to its menu, it's all about delineating who is and isn't in a group, and then getting raucous with your own. But I'd certainly go back, if I had a small crowd and wanted to get a little noisy with booze out of a watermelon.

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Benjamin Wachs

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