Soft Drink

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Original Coca-Cola. Imagine for a moment that you are hard at work on a fiery hot summer afternoon in the heart of the Deep South. For a pick-me-up, what could be finer than a jolt of pure cane sugar, a grain or two of caffeine, and a wee dram of cocaine, delivered in a glass of icy cold, nicely flavored fizzy water?

I am describing, of course, the original Coca-Cola, as concocted by the pharmacist “Doc” Pemberton in Atlanta. Pemberton’s inspiration, back in 1886, was to combine two of the most popular drugs of the era—caffeine and cocaine—into a soft drink that could be served at the soda fountain.

For years officials of the Coca-Cola Company have issued carefully worded press releases denying that cocaine was ever part of their sacred secret formula. And they have a point. By name, at least, cocaine was not included in the original, written recipe for Coca-Cola. But “fluid extract of coca leaves” certainly was, and guess what that is? In the 1890s, after acquiring the formula from Pemberton and starting the Coca-Cola Company, the businessman Asa Candler had all but a microscopic hint of the drug removed, and original Coke was no more. But Candler, a devout Methodist who insisted on starting his company’s annual meetings by singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” bent to temptation. Though his beverage no longer contained cocaine, he continued to suggest that it did, in advertising that promised Coca-Cola would cure headaches, calm nerves, strengthen muscles, and renew “the vigor of the intellect.” Thanks to Candler, the presence of cocaine in Coca-Cola became a piece of American folklore. More than a century later old-timers in the far hollows of the rural South still order a “dope” when they want a Coke.

If cocaine was not the fuel that carried Coca-Cola to the lofty status of beloved national institution, then what was? Granted, Coke tasted good. But so did Moxie, Clicquot Club, Dr Pepper, Pepsi, White Rock ginger ale, Hires root beer, and other venerable competitors. My own theory is that starting in the 1920s, when Robert Woodruff began his remarkable 60-year leadership of the company, Coca-Cola’s advertising and marketing shifted the focus away from what was in Coca-Cola to what Coca-Cola was in—that is, away from the ingredients, which were deemed to be so secret that the written recipe was locked away in a bank vault, and toward a campaign to make Coke’s familiar red logo and wasp-waist bottle a part of the American landscape. In the 1930s Coke’s Christmas ads gave us our modern image of Santa Claus, a luminous, avuncular figure who liked to sip the “pause that refreshes.” The company mobilized for World War II and made sure GIs could buy a Coke for a nickel overseas, even on the battlefield. For the “Greatest Generation” and many of its baby-boom progeny, loyalty to Coca-Cola was a matter of patriotism.

Overrated

Coca-Cola classic. Ironically, it was Coke’s ingredients that triggered controversy and trouble over the years. The first head of the Bureau of Chemistry, precursor to the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Harvey Wiley, was an anticaffeine faddist who tried to put Coke out of business in the early 1900s. Thanks to him, the quantity of caffeine in the formula was cut in half. In the 1950s the focus turned to phosphoric acid, as kids in science labs demonstrated how a tooth left in a glass of Coca-Cola would disintegrate overnight (as would a tooth left in any acidic liquid—say, orange juice). The French briefly declared Coke illegal, citing health concerns.

But the worst damage to Coke was self-inflicted, with the introduction of new Coke in 1985. When an angry public rebelled and forced the company to recant, old Coke returned with the name Coca-Cola classic. But was it the same drink? To save money, the company had begun using high-fructose corn syrup in place of cane sugar as the sweetener, and some connoisseurs swore the taste was off.

I remain a Coke fan. I’d rather drink it out of one of those old six-ounce bottles, sweetened with cane sugar and carbonated to a fare-thee-well, but an ice-cold can is pretty darn good right out of the convenience-store cooler on a summer’s day. Still, just once I’d like to have a dope—a glass of Doc Pemberton’s original elixir. Talk about a Coke and a smile!