The Wine and Coca Tonic That Became Coca-Cola

We’ve heard the story of the origins of Coca-Colathe famous soft drink company once used Cocaine in their innocent Coca-Cola.   However, the backstory is just as interesting: Before the famous Pemberton Company recipe was forced into the cola business due to prohibition, they produced a “wine tonic”—bordeaux and cocaine, branded as “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Coca-Cola who invented this wine tonic.  Before the Wine Coca, or Coca-Cola, there was a worldwide sensation: the original bordeaux and cocaine.  Introducing the Vin Mariani.

VIN MARIANI – The Bordeaux and Coca Tonic

Vin Mariani, the original concoction of bordeaux and coca, was created in 1863 by Angelo Mariani, a French chemist.   Mariani became interested in creating a wine tonic after reading of Paolo Mantegazza’s paper entitled “On the hygienic and medicinal properties of coca and on nervous nourishment in general“(1859).  This same year, Albert Niemann would isolate cocaine from coca leaves.  Mariani became inspired by Mantegazza’s writings and the newfound science, and created his cocaine-wine-tonic.  Unsurprisingly, it was a major success.

According to Coca Erthroxylon (Vin Mariani): Its Uses in the Treatment of Disease (1888):

Each bottle would contain 7mg, or “two ounces of the fresh selected leaves”

Dosing instructions:

“DOSE: Usualy dose is one wine-glassful, about half an hour before or immediately after each meal; for children, half the quantity.”

Doctors were happy to prescribe Vin Mariani:

“I have used the Vin Mariani in my practice quite largely for the last four years with most excellent results, and I consider it greatly superior to any other preparation in the market.” Clinton Wagner, M.D., 341 5th Avenue, New York

“”Since some time I prescribe to my patients Vin Mariani, and in the case of gastric trouble and anemia, I have nothing but praise for the results obtained.” Dr. Cabanellas M.D.

At the very least, we can assume that it seems to have had its benefits for the time, and that it increased the quality of life.  For further anecdotes of Vin Mariani use, refer to Coca Erthroxylon (Vin Mariani): Its Uses in the Treatment of Disease (1888).

As the drink became a worldwide sensation, it attracted worldwide celebrities.  Queen Victoria was said to enjoy the drink.  Pope Leo XIII bestowed Angelo Mariani the Vatican Gold Medal for his creation.

Like much of the world, Pope Leo XIII had an appreciation for Vin Mariani.
Like much of the world, Pope Leo XIII had an appreciation for Vin Mariani.

The pope would go on to endorse the product, which was marketed heavily.

The start of Coca-Cola: “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”

By the close of the 19th century, the Mariani brand was under intense competition.  He had experienced a great deal of success to this point, generating millions of dollars in sales from his wone tonic.   Competition spurred numerous copycat brands, each claiming that their tonic was superior.  One of these copycat brands would go on to be the world’s most iconic beverage;  it was created by John Pemberton, and was dubbed “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”.  We mentioned this earlier, remember?


Shortly afterwards in 1886, temperance legislation passed in John Pemberton’s state of Atlanta, outlawing the sale of alcohol.  With cocaine still a legal substance, Pemberton replaced the wine with sugar syrup and re branded the drink as Coca-Cola.  Coca-Cola would then surge in popularity among the upper class, from where it was coined an “intellectual beverage”.

original coca cola advertisement

Cocaine was removed from Coca Cola in 1903.

Coca-Cola’s widespread appeal continued, and in 1899 the drink was introduced to minorities through fountain machines.  According to Elizabeth Hale of the New York Times, the increased access to cocaine created social issues:

Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them. By 1903, [then-manager of Coca-Cola Asa Griggs] Candler had bowed to white fears (and a wave of anti-narcotics legislation), removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine.

Modern Coca-Cola: Is there still Coca in it?

The use of cocaine was removed from Coca-Cola in 1903, and the drug would become illegal 11 years later.  Coca-Cola Ads began to focus on the drink’s “refreshing” quality, rather than its merit as a “fatigue-aid”.  Today, Coca-Cola is a billion dollar, multi-national company, with one of the most recognizable brands in the world.  They owe that to countless incredible marketing campaigns, which is a story for another day.

Thanks, Coke—I mean Santa.

Despite the company’s efforts to distance themselves from their questionable past, Coca-Cola has never distanced themselves from the coca leaf. To this date, Coca-Cola retains an exclusive relationship with the Stepan Company, the only company in the United States legally permitted to import coca leaves.  Each year, the Stepan company imports 100 tons of coca leaves—from which the cocaine is extracted and sold to a pharmaceutical company, with the non-psychoactive extract sold to Coca-Cola for use in its flagship product.

This process was completely unknown to the public, until a New York Times reporter published the information in 1988.


Have a Coke!

These days, gone are the days of a coca-enthused wine.  However, it’s an excellent story—how a wine and coca imitation became perhaps the most recognizable brand on earth.  If you’re hankering for a taste of what a Vin Mariani may have tasted like, have a look at the Kalimotxo.  The Kalimotxo, a Spanish favorite, calls for equal parts red wine and cola, over ice.

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