I have the world’s most famous secret formula, and I haven’t even made a batch. Maybe you can, but it would be illegal, since it contains a small amount of cocaine. Besides, I’m a writer, not a flavor chemist or mad inventor, so I haven’t even tried. But how I came to be in possession of this handwritten formula, and what it means, is an interesting story.
The facsimile above comes from page 491 of my new book, For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (Basic Books, 2013, third edition). That is the handwriting of Frank Robinson, the same guy who named Coca-Cola in the first place. His partner, the Atlanta patent medicine man and pharmacist John Pemberton, created the beverage in 1886 but just called it “my temperance drink” until Robinson suggested the catchy name, which refers to its two principal drug ingredients—coca leaf (containing the alkaloid cocaine) and kola nut (containing the alkaloid caffeine). Robinson’s handwriting may look familiar, since he also wrote out the famous Coca-Cola cursive script logo. He also advertised and manufactured the drink in its early years. And after Pemberton betrayed him by selling the rights piecemeal without his permission, it was Robinson who convinced another Atlanta pharmacist, Asa Candler, to get hold of Coca-Cola after Pemberton’s death in 1888 and to promote it properly.
Without Frank Robinson, whom I call the unsung hero of Coca-Cola, the drink probably would have gone the way of Pemberton’s other concoctions, such as Extract of Stillingia, Globe Flower Cough Syrup, or French Wine Coca.
You’ll notice that the formula for French Wine Coca, invented in 1884, is included here as well. That’s because it is actually the forerunner of Coca-Cola. Here’s the scoop on that. In the 1880s, Vin Mariani, a French wine with an infusion of coca leaf, was a world-famous drink, endorsed by the likes of Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, and Pope Leo XIII. So Pemberton’s French Wine Coca was just one of numerous imitators. Then in 1885 Atlanta voted to go dry as of July 1, 1886. Panicked, Pemberton modified his beverage to take out the wine, though he left the fluid extract of coca leaf. He added kola nut, lime juice, citric acid, some caramel coloring, a number of interesting essential oils (vanilla, nutmeg, coriander, neroli, etc., combined with a negligible amount of alcohol), and a whole lot of sugar to sweeten the bitter taste. Then he mixed an ounce of the syrup with five ounces of carbonated water over ice, and voila—Coca-Cola, introduced in May 1886.
The irony is that when Atlanta supposedly went dry a couple of months later, Pemberton found that he could still sell French Wine Coca as a “medicinal beverage.” He hadn’t really needed to modify it after all.
So how did I get this facsimile copy? When I was writing the first edition of the book twenty years ago, I interviewed Frank Robinson II, a great-grandson, who played cat-and-mouse with me, allowing me take a quick peak at the formula, but never letting me have it. A few years later, when he was getting divorced, his wife demanded the formula as part of the settlement, causing a very public battle over it. Frank got to keep it, but then he died of cancer in 2001. Four years later, his sister Laura Robinson Vanwagner called me out of the blue. She had the formula. “You really ought to have a copy,” she said, and she gave it to me.
In the century-plus after Pemberton came up with the drink, the basic formula stayed the same, but it was modified a bit over time. Asa Candler and Frank Robinson fiddled with it, which may account for the fact that this version is not quite the same as the other formula I’ve got in the book that I found in Pemberton’s recipe book. Then they took out the cocaine in 1903 (though the formula still contains decocainized coca leaf). A few years later, as part of a settlement with the U. S. government, they cut the amount of caffeine in half. In the 1980s, Coke in the US switched from sugar to high fructose corn syrup. At some point, phosphoric acid replaced citric acid.
So the Coca-Cola you drink today isn’t quite the same. And presumably the formula so famously locked up in a vault in the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta isn’t quite the same, either. (For my little video tour of this over-the-top vault presentation, click here.)
So why all the furor over this world-famous secret formula? I think it has more to do with mystique and hype than reality. When I first considered putting the formula into my book, I was worried that it might hurt the company somehow. So I asked a Coke spokesman what would happen if I (hypothetically) did that.
He smiled, opened his desk drawer, and pretended to hand me something. “Here you go, Mark. Let’s say I happen to have the formula right here. What are you going to do with it?” I said I’d put it in my book. OK, then what? Well, maybe someone would make it. All right. What will they call it? How will they distribute and advertise it? What will they charge? I saw his point. Coca-Cola had spent well over a century creating the world’s most effective distribution and advertising system. Why would anyone go out of their way to buy a fake Coca-Cola that would have to cost more money and be harder to find than the Real Thing?
Good question. It turns out the real Coca-Cola formula isn’t secret at all. It’s in plain sight—relentless marketing and universal availability.
Mark Pendergrast is the author of For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It, and other books, including Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. For information on his books and to contact him, go to markpendergrast.com.