Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inescapable Red & White

Can’t say that Coca-Cola is a regular item on my shopping list. More times than not it’s missing from my refrigerator, but there are also those late afternoons when I enjoy rum with a splash of Coke, and when that Cuba Libre feeling is upon me a few cans of Coke will be found in the pantry. My fondness for the drink comes from Nelrose English, a whiskey-voiced chanteuse working the piano bar at Sammy’s Bar & Lounge, often singing that Andrew Sisters favorite, “Rum and Coca-Cola” on Friday nights many years ago. I also remember the hot summer afternoons of youth when we bought a bottle of Coke for 5¢ and for another nickel a bag of Planter’s peanuts to pour into the neck of the bottle. Like so many other American boys I was halfway raised on Coca-Cola. Many years later it finally got through to me that Coke, with all its sugar, etcetera was not the best thing for one’s health.

In 1886 druggist John Pemberton, with the assistance of fellow pharmacist Willis Venable, brewed the first batch of Coca-Cola in his Georgia backyard. On May 8th of that same year it was first sold at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta as a patent medicine for the treatment of morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence, among other things. The ‘medicine’ was served for five cents a glass at the drugstore soda fountain.

The recipe for Coca-Cola was a reworking of an earlier tonic concocted by Pemberton called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, and like the popular French Vin Mariani, included alcohol among its ingredients. In the years immediately following the Civil War morphine addiction, depression and alcoholism were not uncommon in veterans, and nearly equaled by neurasthenia (fatigue, anxiety, headache, neuralgia and depression) among highly-strung southern women. Ads for Pemberton’s wine-tonic described it as beneficial for “ladies, and all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration, irregularities of the stomach, bowels and kidneys, who require a nerve tonic and a pure, delightful diffusible stimulant.”

Newly enacted temperance legislation put a stop to alcoholic drinks and Pemberton was forced to re-work his tonic and find a substitute for the wine. The result was Coca-Cola, an alliterative name chosen by an employee of Pemberton’s reflecting its two key ingredients, cocaine from coca leaves, and caffeine from kola nuts. Pemberton called for five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, a significant dose, and at one time the drink contained nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. It continues to include coca flavoring, but cocaine was removed from the recipe in 1903. Instead of using fresh leaves, Coca-Cola began using “spent” leaves—leftovers of the cocaine-extraction process containing only trace levels of cocaine. Today Coca-Cola includes a cocaine-free coca leaf extract made by a New Jersey chemical company.

Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time on March 12, 1894. The original bottles were very different from the later hobble-skirt design that appeared in 1915 that everyone now recognizes as Coke. Cans of Coke first appeared in 1955.

Coca-Cola has become in the 125 years since its birth inextricably tied to American identity. Ads were painted by Norman Rockwell, the Andrews Sisters sang about it, Ozzie and Harriet endorsed it, Andy Warhol painted its trademark hobble-skirt bottle (designed to make Coke easy to find when customers groped for a bottle in a bucket of ice and water). Even the traditional American depiction of Santa Claus is sometimes said to be based on a Coke ad from 1931—Altogether an indelible stamp upon the culture of most countries around the world. Few are the places where you can escape Coca-Cola.


  1. Very very interesting post today. We are good friends with the former CEO of Coco-Cola in Atlanta which is the home base for Coke. At one time he and another gentlemen who is dead now were the only persons who had the formula for Coco-Cola. I am sure it has been passed on to present executives. Another use for Coke besides a refreshing drink is to clean auto engines......yes, you read correctly. Imagine what it does to our insides!

  2. And besides going good with a hearty splash of rum or whiskey, and besides cleaning engines as Beverly says, it can also be used to clean windshields on long trips when oil from the highways coats windshields and the wipers. Do the old shake shake shake and spew it like some champagn good time. They may have removed the cocaine but something in it still dissolves oil. Yikes.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America