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The Real Thing

March 2023
1min read

Secret Formula

by Frederick Allen, HarperBusiness, 500 pages, $25.00. CODE: HPC-1

For all of Coca-Cola’s global power and status, its most telling historical image is of a basement in 1866 downtown Atlanta. There, sweating over a brass kettle of sugary broth, Coke’s early inventors funneled their sweet liquid through a filter of river-bottom sand. From such wobbly beginnings Coke was lucky ever to have lasted into the twentieth century.

Secret Formula is Coca-Cola’s complete history as told by the former CNN commentator Frederick Allen (no relation to the managing editor of this magazine). It follows the caramel-colored syrup through the early experiments of the Atlanta pharmacist “Doc” Pemberton, past the market savvy of its early promoters, and on to the triumphant, world-beating success of the eventual giant corporation. Allen reveals how the company rebuffed governmental challenges about added cocaine (a discernible ingredient until 1903) and patches holes in the story of the disastrous “New Coke.”

For students of history the story takes its best turns in the company’s early days. Coca-Cola often changed hands and very nearly died. As Allen shows, Coke needed one secret ingredient nearly every business requires in its early years: luck.

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