The Korean Coffee Myth

Sontag Hotel
This myth that coffee was first introduced to Korea through Antoinette Songtag (of the Sontag Hotel) has made its way into history books, movies and even on this blog and, to be honest, I am tired of it. 

According to MBC America:

It was in 1896, when King Kojong was served coffee at the Russian Embassy for the first time by a woman named Sontak, who was the sister-in-law of Russian Ambassador Veber.

According to Joongang Daily (January 28, 2010):

Coffee was first introduced in Korea during the 19th century. Yoo Gil-jun, the first Korean student to study abroad, said in the book “Seoyugyunmun,” which he wrote in 1895 after traveling around America and Europe, “Westerners habitually drink coffee and juice like Koreans drink sungnyung every day,” referring to a traditional Korean beverage served after meals, made from cooked rice.

At least the Joongang doesn’t claim Kojong was the first: 

The Joseon ruler Gojong (1852-1919) seems to have been one of the earliest Korean coffee lovers, according to records that say the king came to enjoy drinking coffee in 1896, while he sought refuge at the Russian Embassy from a cabinet that was friendly to Japan.

Many of you already know that I have done my best to debunk earlier “Firsts” in Korea including the first soccer game, bicycle, car, rickshaw, ice-skating and airplane, so it is only natural that this one would get my attention as well.  The truth is – I can not say when King Kojong (Gojong) first began to drink coffee but I can say that coffee was served in the palace well before Kojong took up residence at the Russian legation.

In September 1886, Dr. Horace N. Allen and several visiting American naval officers were invited to a picnic just outside of Seoul on Pukhan Mountain.  After a strenuous climb they arrived at “a great Buddhist temple and many surrounding buildings, one of which had been fitted up as a banquet hall for naval guests.  Here a foreign meal was served by cooks trained in foreign service (sent from the king’s palace), and washed down with the beverage brewed at Milwaukee and the sparkling ‘Extra Dry’, while foreign cakes, nuts and cigars, with strong black coffee, wound up the feast, which then gave place to a quaint concert by a band of performers on stringed instruments.  The wild, weird strains of the music, fitting in so aptly with the untamed surroundings, made our own presence and the modern nature of the feast we had just enjoyed contrast very strangely with all of us.”

You can read the rest of the article here – at Jeju Weekly.

Picture credit – My collection

  • WangKon936


    What do you think about this? Just got it over the weekend from the Korea Studies mail list:

    Hello Everyone,

    I would like to let you know that Frederick Arthur McKenzie’s first book on Korea, “The Tragedy of Korea”, originally published in 1908, is now available on as a reprinted edition, in addition to his second book, “Korea’s Fight for Freedom”, first published in 1920.

    As the second book has been readily available for a quite some time, I will just touch upon “The Tragedy of Korea”. In this first book, McKenzie introduces it as “the story of the awakening and the destruction of a nation”.

    His narrative starts with a 1866 incident involving American schooner General Sherman and ends with his daring 1907 journey to the “Righteous Army (의병,義兵), covering 40 years of Korea’s struggle as a party in political conflict with an “aroused China, an ambitious Japan” and expansionist Russia, culminating in The Eulsa Protectorate Treaty (을사보호조약,乙巳保護条約) of 1905 and the subsequent uprising of the Righteous Army. A copy of the complete treaty is included in the Appendices of the book.

    The Appendix also contains various treaties Chosun signed with foreign powers and other Korean treaties signed between 1876-1897. Also included is the trial record of Miura Goro (三浦梧樓), the then Japanese Minister to Chosun who concocted the plan to murder Queen Min in 1895, known as 을미사변(乙未事變).

    McKenzie’s final sentences in the book were prophetic. He said “The future of Japan, the future of the East, and, to some extent, the future of the world, lies in the answer to the question whether the militarists or the party of peaceful expansion gain the upper hand in the immediate future. If the one, then we shall have harsher rule in Korea, steadily increasing aggression in Manchuria, growing interference with China, and in the end, a Titanic conflict, the end of which none can see.”

    He did not live long enough (1869-1931) to witness his prophesy realized.

    The only fault I found with this reprinted edition is that it is missing 6 of 27 illustrations and the Petition from the Koreans of Hawaii (page 311).

    The Last Battle of the Tortoise Ship(거북선, 龜船)
    I found this entry fascinating. When General Sherman was grounded in the Daedong River, *”An ancient armored float was brought into play, the tortoise boat, a scow mounted with cannon and protected by a covering of sheet iron and bull hide. The front part of the armour lifted when the shot was fired and closed immediately afterward. Even the tortoise boat failed to injure the foreign ship.”

    I hope you will find this book valuable too.

    Thank You,

    Kwang-On Yoo

    Interesting account of the turtleship (or a primitive facsimile, perhaps?).

    One can read the book for free via the Internet here:

  • robert neff

    Yes, I received it, too. I actually made a comment about McKenzie’s account many many years ago and Kim Soft copied it to his site. (Has he passed away?). Personally I think McKenzie made a mistake. If my memory serves me right, McKenzie was quite the hot-headed character who got his butt thumped by some Koreans in a fight he started.

  • WangKon936

    Yes, I believe he did pass away. He was in his late 60’s I believe when he did.

    I was more interested in that passage on the turtle ship. However, Kwang-on pretty much covered what the book said about the boat.

  • gbevers

    I read that King Kojong first drank coffee during his stay in the Russian Legation, where the king became so dependent on his royal interpreter that the interpreter became a close confidant, at least in the interpreter’s mind. After he returned to the royal palace, the king continued to drink coffee on a regular basis, but he no longer needed his Russian interpreter, who became so upset that the king no longer called on his sevices that he tried killing the king by poisoning his coffee.

    Supposedly, the interpreter knew that King Kojong and his son, Prince Sunjong, would drink coffee together daily, so he decided to try to kill the king by poisoning the coffee. The coffee, however, tasted so strange to the king that he spit it out, but Prince Sunjong continued to drink his and, thereby, became violently ill and almost died. After the poisoning, King Sunjong was never the same, and it is even spectulated that the incident led to his early death.

  • robert neff


    Yes, you are partially correct. The interpreter was Kim Hong-nuik, a lowly water coolie who could barely read (hanja) but managed to wiggle his way into power partially through his Russian language ability. His hometown was not too far from the Russian border if memory serves me right. I did a two-piece article on him I think in 2001 for KT.

    As for the king no longer needing his services – well, that seems to have been part of the political backlash from the highhandedness of Speyer and rivalry within the Korean court.

    Sunjong was not the only to suffer – the chief eunuch also partook of the exotic liquid and was on death’s very doorstep for a couple of days. It is to my understanding that the poison was opium and that the incident left Sunjong impotent.

    I plan on doing an article later on the poisoning and the subsequent measures taken by the Korean government through an American advisor. You would be surprised at who (in this case an American hero – per se) made their appearance in Korea.

  • Lankov

    Robert, an admiration. As usual. Really, I want to go public and say that nobody even remotely equals you in this research. BTW, I was partially responsible for thy myth, but now now I corrected wording in my new MS, which now describes Ms.Sontag as merely a “person who was instrumental in making coffee fashionable at the royal court”

  • robert neff

    Andrei – thank you very much for the more than kind compliment. Seeing that we are going public, I wish to also say that you have always assisted me and have provided me with so many opportunities. My deepest appreciation.

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