Coca Cola Cocaine

Thanks to Eater for this:

An unassuming set of buildings in Maywood, New Jersey, less than 10 miles from Manhattan, holds a surprising secret: It’s what might arguably be called the cocaine capital of the United States.

Here, the Stepan Company manufactures cocaine legally, with special permission from the U.S. government, all in the service of a familiar company: Coca-Cola.

The name Coca-Cola is a hybrid of two ingredients used in the secret recipe for the famous soda since the late 1800s: cola comes from kola, an African nut known for its caffeine content, and coca comes from the coca leaf — which, of course, is the plant source for the drug cocaine.

In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley uncover Coca-Cola’s real secret formula, while exploring the lengths Coke has gone to in order to source its ingredients.

Coca leaf has been used in its native South America in medicinal, spiritual, and recreational contexts for centuries. When chewed or brewed into tea, the leaf has a mild stimulating effect, and has been used traditionally to treat stomach issues, suppress appetite, and relieve the physical effects of high altitudes. But, in the 1800s, cocaine — a powerful stimulant isolated and extracted from the coca leaf by the power of chemistry — became Europeans’ drug du jour. It found its way into medicine as well as the enthusiastic embrace of Sigmund Freud, it was written into the plot of Sherlock Holmes, and it was also added to an array of popular foods and drinks.

Coca Cola

One of those drinks included Vin Mariani, a patent medicine made with red wine and cocaine that was a favorite of both Pope Leo XIII and President Ulysses S. Grant. It was this beverage that the Coca-Cola’s founder — a morphine-addicted, down-on-his-luck Civil War veteran named John Pemberton — decided to copy, creating Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. His only alteration to the recipe was the addition of kola nut, creating a trifecta of wine, cocaine, and caffeine that was even more potent than the original. No wonder the advertisements claimed there was “health and joy in every bottle.”

When Coca-Cola’s home city of Atlanta, Georgia went dry in the 1880s, the red wine had to go. So Pemberton reformulated; he kept the coca and kola, but instead combined them with other flavors in a syrup that any soda fountain could add to carbonated water. The first iteration of Coca-Cola was born.

Currently, the original Coca-Cola formula is kept in a vault at The World of Coca-Cola, located at 121 Baker Street, in Pemberton Place, adjacent to the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. 

According to The Atlanticin the year 2003, Maywood Chemical Works — now owned by Stepan Company — imported more than 385,000 pounds of coca leaf for Coca-Cola, enough to make $200 million of cocaine, all of which legally had to be destroyed, likely by incineration.

Perhaps the strangest piece of the story, given the enormous effort Coca-Cola has made to maintain their coca supply, is that the coca leaf itself makes only the tiniest difference to the soda’s final flavor. The amount of de-cocainized leaves that Stepan supplies is minuscule; as former Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger wrote in 1951, it’s more likely that it “continues to be used merely to enable the Company to retain the word ‘Coca’ in the name which it has spent millions to advertise.”

Drug loopholes and cocaine bonfires aren’t the only deeply weird moments in the Coca-Cola story. Check out the latest episode of Gastropod, “Always Coca-Cola,” for the backstory on the iconic company’s real secret recipe for success.

The Stepan Company

100 West Hunter Avenue

Maywood, NJ 07607


An add for Coca-Cola in The PaC-SaC, a student publication from the Presbyterian College of South Carolina, circa 1922.

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