The Curious Drink That Put The 'Coca' In Cola
Image Credit: Vintage Coca-Cola ad. Via Pond5.

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APRIL 16, 1865. A 34-year-old lieutenant colonel from Georgia was fighting in what would be the last battle of the American Civil War, in the city of Columbus, when he sustained an injury that would shape his life — and the world — in an unexpected way. 

In the thick of the skirmish, the Confederate Army officer — a doctor and chemist who ran a drugstore in his civilian life — was slashed by a sabre, across his chest. The surgeon on site thought he wouldn't make it, and gave him a heavy dose of morphine to ease the pain. Miraculously though, the lieutenant colonel did survive, albeit with a morphine addiction that was to plague him to the end of his days. 

His name was John S Pemberton, and he is known to us as the inventor of Coca-Cola. 


To trace the sequence of events that led to Coca-Cola's creation, we need to travel back a decade in time from the events described above, and across an ocean, to Europe. There, an Italian neurologist, Paolo Mantegazza, was conducting an experiment on himself that he felt sure would have significant ramifications for humanity. 

After earning his medical degree in 1854, Mantegazza had embarked on extensive travels, through India and the Americas. In South America, he dwelt at length, practicing as a doctor. He was particularly struck by one custom of the indigenous people: the chewing of coca leaves to address a variety of ailments, and for nutrition. They were also ingesting anywhere between 60-80 milligrams of another byproduct of the coca leaves every time they chewed on them: cocaine. Mantegazza decided to try chewing the leaves, and on his return home to Italy began documenting its effects on his system. Suffice it to say that he became an ardent fan, proselytising coca’s benefits in his research papers, going as far as to declare on one occasion that he preferred to have a lifespan of 10 years with coca, than how-many-ever centuries without it.


Among the people influenced by Mantegazza’s exhortations was a French chemist called Angelo Mariano. Mariano was keen to take this miracle leaf to the public — and ever-the-savvy-businessman, make some money in the process. He exported quantities of coca leaf from South America, and used the extract in numerous products. One of his products, developed in the 1860s, would prove to be extremely popular — coca wine, or “Vin Mariani”.

Mariano’s eureka moment was finding that mixing coca leaves in wine helped extract the cocaine they contained, without the need for chewing them with lime. He experimented more with the taste and flavour: aside from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves, his Vin Mariani contained brandy and sugar. He touted it as having a range of health benefits and medicinal properties.

But Mariano’s real knack was in how he promoted Vin Mariani. He took the idea of celebrity endorsements and ran with it, getting none other than the Pope himself to proclaim that coca wine helped sustain him at the times even prayer did not! Jules Verne, Emile Zola sang its praises. So too did Thomas Edison. Former US President Ulysses S Grant is said to have imbibed coca wine to deal with the discomfort of his cancer, as he worked on a memoir in his later years. 

Someone else heard about this miracle drink too — someone struggling with chronic pain and an increasingly expensive morphine addiction: John S Pemberton. 


A year since his life-changing injury, Pemberton was looking to kick his morphine habit. He researched painkillers that did not contain morphine as the ingredient, and in due course, came across Vin Mariani. He tinkered with the formula for coca wine, adding kola nuts and other elements into the mix. The finished product was a "tonic" he christened "Pemberton's French Wine Coca", a “great and sure remedy for all nervous disorders”, a “restorer of health” for “body and mind”.

But change was on the anvil. Temperance was already becoming legislation in some American states by 1886, so Pemberton needed to get rid of the alcohol in his tonic pronto if he hoped to keep selling it. An error — he mixed the base syrup with carbonated water — teased the possibility of a delicious new non-alcoholic beverage. His bookkeeper suggested a catchy name and drew out a logo for the drink, which Pemberton intended to dispense from soda fountains: Coca-Cola.