Few soft-drinks have a more interesting and tragic backstory than Coca-Cola. The $74 billion dollar soft drinks company certainly has a very tumultuous and dark past.
Let’s rewind to the mid-1800’s, where it all begins with John Stith Pemberton, a promising 19 year-old who had a great interest in chemistry. In 1850 he got his Medical Degree and a few years later, married and started a family. Having specialised in chemistry, he soon opened his own drug-store in Columbus, Georgia. With his wife Ann, newborn son, Charles, and his own pharmacy, the likelihood of this Knoxville born Chemist inventing the world’s most consumed soft-drink ever, were very slim indeed.
Ten years later president Lincoln was elected President of the Not So United States. There were still many southern territories who had yet to become states, wanting to become a confederation of self-run sovereign states and were also in disagreement with Lincoln’s pledge to end slavery. When Lincoln was elected, seven slave states in the South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. As the Union Army descended on the South to dissolve the rebels, the confederate army held the 1200 mile line from Virginia to Missouri. Fighting for their own liberty and freedom whilst at the same time supporting slavery. John Pemberton enrolled in the Confederate army and quickly ascended to Lieutenant Colonel, perhaps thanks to his contacts as a Freemason.
After 4 years of fighting alongside the rebels, at the Battle of Columbus he was stabbed in the chest with a sabre.
Perhaps this was the catalyst to the invention of the popular drink we all know today.
Due to his injury, John Pemberton retired from the battle, bed-ridden and on morphine. Unfortunately he became addicted to the strong pain-killer and once again in his pharmacy, began experimenting with other drugs, attempting to find a cure for his morphine addiction. This led him onto Coca Wine, a French beverage combining wine and cocaine. He mixed the wine soaked coca leaves with Kola nuts and damiana flowers creating “Pemberton’s French Coca Wine.”
The drink became very popular among adults, but in 1885, due to the new temperance legislation in Atlanta, Pemberton was forced to make the beverage non-alcoholic, and replaced the wine with a sugar-syrup aiming to target the soda fountain market. Pemberton’s marketer, Frank Mason Robinson suggested he call the Coca leaf and Kola nut infused beverage; Coca-Cola and the world’s most popular soft-drink was finally born.
The drug-infused drink certainly packed a punch, and they made sure to market this, with phrases like; “The Best Brain and Nerve Drink” and “A Most Wonderful invigorator of Genital Organs”. But it was still not the soft-drink we know today.
Soon the rampant abuse of cocaine was all over the papers, as the term “Cocaine Fiend” sprung up everywhere. Pemberton wanting to detach his brand from this association, once again altered his Brain Tonic, this time finding a way to remove the alkaloid ecgonine from the coca leaves, thus making them drug-free. To reach the final recipe for the Coca-Cola we all know today, he replaced the cocaine drug for caffeine, a much less potent and widely accepted energy drug.
The pharmacist’s beverage sky-rocketed. The product seemed to have a bright future. However Pemberton did not. He had never managed to cure his Morphine addiction and alongside the soft-drink endeavour it had all but left him bankrupt. He desperately started selling the rights to his formula, but kept one share for his son Charles. In 1888 John and Charles, in need of money, sold their final share for $1750. John Stitch Pemberton died of stomach cancer a few months later at the age of 57.
He was promptly followed by his son Charles, 6 years later who died due to an Opium addiction.
Today, the secret formula of Coca-Cola’s recipe is said to be one of the world’s best kept secrets. Although the vague “vegetable extracts” listed among the sparkling soft drink’s few ingredients are likely to still be the same Coca leaf and Kola nut extracts. But in this day and age, how does an American brand get their hands on 175’000 kilos of coca leaves?
Stepan Co. in New Jersey is Coca-Cola’s Chemical Processing Plant and the only company authorised by the U.S. to import the narcotic plant. Here over $200 million dollars worth of cocaine is extracted every year, and sold to medical companies for use in pain-killers.
The neutralized leaves are then ground up into the sugar-syrup base ready to be sent to the bottling plant where the remaining 90% of water is added.
Yes. Perhaps just as surprising as knowing that there is coca-leaf in every can, is knowing that 90% of that can of Coca-Cola is filtered tap water.
Which part of Coca-Cola’s dark past surprised you the most?