17 Fun and Little-Known Facts About Coca-Cola
Since it was first poured in 1886, Coca-Cola has become America's sugary beverage of choice — but it's taken a long, winding path to get there. From a heady early history of drug-infused secret formulas to outer-space stunts and flavor flops, the story of Coke involves plenty of weird and wild tales that fans of the fizzy soda might not know. Here are some fascinating facts about Coca-Cola to share with friends the next time you sip the real thing.
First developed in Atlanta by Dr. John S. Pemberton, a pharmacist and former Civil War cavalry leader, Coca-Cola got its start as a health tonic under another name. Injured during the war, Pemberton became addicted to morphine and heard that cocaine might help curb the addiction (odd as that might sound now). He was also inspired by the coca-leaf-infused French wine Vin Mariani, which at the time was quite popular — and legal without a prescription — for restoring "health and vitality." He concocted a beverage combining wine and coca leaf and called it Pemberton's French Wine Coca.
In 1886, Atlanta and surrounding Fulton County voted by a slim margin to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages, prompting Pemberton to transform his wine into an alcohol-free soda. The result was a tonic made of coca-leaf extract, sugar syrup, flavoring oils, and kola nut extract, which was added for caffeine and helped inspire the new name "Coca-Cola." Pemberton supposedly made the first batch in an iron pot at home, stirring it with a large oar.
With the alcohol removed, Pemberton marketed Coca-Cola as a temperance drink for Prohibition, but also for its alleged mental benefits. The pharmacist had patented other supposed health remedies like Globe of Flower Cough Syrup and Triplex Liver Pills. Early ads touted the soda as an "intellectual beverage" and a "brain tonic" that could help calm the nerves.
Frank M. Robinson, the company bookkeeper and Pemberton's partner, is credited with the name "Coca-Cola" and also designing the brand's iconic and trademarked script. The logo, written in what's known as Spencerian script — and still used today, with only minor modifications over the years — is one of the most recognized around the globe.
Coca-Cola emerged in the South under Jim Crow laws and initially was available only by the glass and primarily at soda fountains — which were segregated and popular among middle-class whites as an alternative to Prohibition-banned bars. But growing demand led the company to look for a more portable vessel and a broader audience. Before his death in 1888, Pemberton sold a majority of his company to businessman Asa G. Candler, who expanded to soda fountains beyond Atlanta and allowed a trio of entrepreneurs to bring Coca-Cola to the broader public with large-scale bottling in 1899.
With over 1,000 bottling plants at the turn of the 20th century, Coca-Cola faced the challenge of an inconsistent look. Competitors also attempted to imitate the beverage. To set Coke apart, bottlers agreed to use a uniform and unique contoured design in 1916. While many think the curvy bottle was designed to resemble a shapely figure, the company maintains that it was inspired by a cocoa pod. Instantly recognizable today, the distinctive bottle design wasn't officially trademarked until 1977.
While the inclusion of cocaine in the original recipe for Coca-Cola is an oft-cited piece of trivia, the amount was very small. According to Mark Pendergrast, author of "For God, Country, and Coca-Cola," the initial 6-ounce servings contained only 4.3 milligrams of the drug. The company likes to emphasize that no cocaine was added to the beverage; it was present in the liquid extract of the coca leaf. That small amount was reduced much further in 1903, amid growing concerns of addiction to the drug, and eliminated altogether in 1928.
Coca-Cola still uses its namesake leaf in the recipe for Coke — just not the psychoactive part. A chemical processing company in New Jersey removes the problematic ecgonine alkaloid from the plant first and refers to the coca in code as "Merchandise No. 5."
Coca-Cola is famously secretive about the exact recipe for its world-famous soda, even reportedly pulling out of India when the government insisted the company reveal the formula. It's also rumored that only two company execs know the formula — and each knows only half of it. Pendergrast claims to have found the original recipe while researching his book, although the company flatly denies it. He says an archivist at the Atlanta headquarters gave him a copy of Pemberton's notes, which included ingredients such as, "fluid extract of coca leaves, caffeine, vanilla extract, lime juice, citric acid, alcohol, and various natural flavors including orange oil, lemon oil, nutmeg, cinnamon, and coriander."
One reason nobody seems to have figured out Coca-Cola's recipe is that the company keeps it locked up. In 2011, to commemorate the brand's 125th anniversary, the secret formula was moved to a 10-foot-tall vault at World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, where visitors can test flavor combinations in an interactive exhibition. Of course, were anyone to figure out the exact formula, it's highly unlikely Coca-Cola would ever admit it was correct. Plus, is it really Coca-Cola without the signature logo?
Coca-Cola may want to keep the recipe exclusive, but the company certainly wants as many people as possible to drink the iconic soda — and that was especially true of soldiers during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the story goes, the president of Coca-Cola at the time, Robert Woodruff, insisted that every man in uniform receive a bottle for 5 cents, regardless where they were or what the expense to the company. Coca-Cola was considered an "essential" beverage, so the company was able to send uniformed employees to set up bottling plants behind the lines. The German arm of Coca-Cola continued to produce the soda under Nazi rule, and even Adolf Hitler was said to be a fan.
From Elton John, Paula Abdul, and Max Headroom to Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, plenty of big-name celebrities have shilled for Coca-Cola over the years. But the very first endorsements came from opera star Lillian Nordica and actress and light opera singer Hilda Clark. Clark became a spokesperson for Coca-Cola and appeared on much of the company's advertising from 1899 to 1903 — everything from serving trays to clocks and playing cards.
In April 1985, Coca-Cola announced a change to the original recipe, proudly naming the soda "New Coke." The company claimed the new formula was "smoother and sweeter." Critics said it tasted like the original had been "diluted by melting ice." Facing public outcry, the company switched back to the old formula just three months later. It's considered one of the biggest marketing flops of all time — right up there with Crystal Pepsi, another casualty of the Cola Wars between the two companies. But Coca-Cola's stock soared when it brought back the original.
Coca-Cola attempted another historic launch in 1985, sending New Coke into space aboard the Challenger. The company proudly proclaimed that it was "the first soft drink enjoyed in space." A mere eight hours later, the astronauts opened a can of Pepsi — which a Pepsi spokesperson cheekily said was to wash down the taste of the Coke. (Apparently sipping soda of any kind in space is not a pleasant experience.)
While you can get Coca-Cola just about anywhere, there are two countries where it isn't sold (at least officially): Cuba and North Korea. Coca-Cola left Cuba after the revolution, when Fidel Castro took over, and the soda has never been sold in North Korea (although there are reports of underground sales). Coca-Cola was also absent from Myanmar for decades, but that changed a few years ago.
While many think of Coca-Cola as America's soda of choice, Mexicans actually drink more of the sweet stuff. According to statistics from 2012, Mexico consumed 745 8-ounce servings of Coke per person each year compared with a paltry 403 servings in the U.S. And the popularity of soda there has continued to grow.
In a near full circle back to the proto-days of French Wine Coca, Coca-Cola just announced that it's going to sell its first alcoholic line of drinks (minus the narcotic). Sadly for most of us, the boozy beverages will be available only in Japan — at least for now.
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