Last month, we talked about prohibition. It was the famous US ban on importing, selling, buying, and, ultimately, drinking alcohol that was behind the creation of the most famous of fizzy drinks. Let’s not beat about the bush: before becoming the famous four-syllable word, Coca-Cola was a Bordeaux wine with a hefty dose of cocaine. When it was decreed, in the land of the Founding Fathers, that drinking alcohol was banned, the liberty was taken, in a reverse miracle, of changing the wine into sugared water, while still keeping a generous ratio of a substance that was as inebriating as any cheap red plonk.
A Jumped-up Frenchman
Let’s start from the beginning. The inventor of Bordeaux laced with coca, the ancestor of the illustrious North-American beverage, was a Corsican. Angelo Mariani, a pharmaceutical assistant, made a “tonic” to reinvigorate tired bodies and grieving souls. However, the mixture was bitter and undrinkable. He sought a tasty vehicle for his remedy that would be loved by all. By adding a Bordeaux grand cru into the mix, Mariani, a Corsican to be sure, but a good Frenchman first and foremost, had the brilliant idea of creating a dual-purpose recreational drink: you could get drunk and stoned at the same time. Vin Mariani would meet with global success from the end of the nineteenth century: Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers, several American presidents, a host of queens and kings, and three Popes would avow and extol the benefits of the liquor, which contained as much cocaine as a top trader might take in a good snort.
However, Mariani was a creative researcher, not a salesman. With all the publicity for his cocaine-laced wine based around illustrious personages, the common people, who didn’t know how to drink, were completely forgotten: Vin Mariani was rather expensive and beyond the budget of any old lush.
The American Copycat (and Phony)
When the famous Vin Mariani tried to flow into the vast American market, John Pemberton, half-pharmacist, half-snake-oil-salesman, developed a copy-and-paste version of the “French Coke,” calling it “French Wine Coca.” This somewhat rough replica of the Franco-Corsican wine aimed to conquer the luxury drinks market. Unfortunately, Vin Mariani enjoyed too much notoriety and had even received the blessing of a great American Civil War hero who went on to become president, General Grant, who was lacking the protectionist spirit of a certain Donald Trump, who would rather support a powdered egg and bacon preparation over a real French peasant-style bacon omelette, simply because the foul freeze-dried mixture is made by three degenerate, inbred, paedophile rednecks from the mountains of the Midwest.
In addition, although Thomas Edison himself dosed up on Vin Mariani to clear his fine mind and soothe his old war wounds, Americans, who don’t know how to drink, would rather sup whisky, which is such an Anglo-Saxon product; they weren’t going to take lessons from those French frogs when it came to their drinking habits. Pemberton, tired of copying a coke-laced French wine and himself addicted to bottled cocaine, sold all his shares to his colleagues, going down the route of “Narcotics Anonymous,” while slyly swigging Mariani wine, which tasted much better than the “French Wine Coca” plonk, behind the counter of his pharmacy. The pharmacist’s good friends and business partners were left with useless stock and, in danger of becoming junkies themselves, would not experience intergalactic fame until a few decades later, thanks to the Prohibition of 1919.
This providential ban would drive all forms of alcohol, Vin Mariani included, out of the US. Pemberton’s partners, good salesmen first and foremost, would deal with the French Wine Coca business in the most professional way: among their number were an accountant who had already cottoned onto the power of advertising and the mesmerizing influence of a strong visual identity. In 1919, “French Wine Coca” underwent a “reverse cirrhosis” transformation: its wine was turned into sugared water. The copy of Vin Mariani, which was already an ersatz of Bordeaux wine laced with coke, became a lemonade with a generous helping of cocaine; the product was less expensive and the lushes became junkies without suffering too much from Prohibition, which would last until 1933, the date that Mr Hitler, sober as a staid old maiden aunt, would ban almost everything in his country that didn’t come from the Germanic lands, apart from sales of Fanta, an entirely German invention, but a beverage made in the factories of The Coca-Cola Company GmbH.
When the Führer committed suicide in 1945, rumour had it that he suggested his electrician change a light bulb in the bunker using two rows of bottles of the coke-alike as a stepladder … A slight digression, but one that brings us to the point that, as soon as the harmful effects of cocaine began to be talked of, Vin Mariani sank into oblivion and the Atlanta partners quickly turned the “energizing” content of their syrup around, with a formula that they declared secret, just to add an air of mystery to a product that was going to flood the whole world. An appealing logo would be designed and a lovely little bottle made in glass, so that it could be sold elsewhere than at the Atlanta lemonade sellers’ fountain. The rest is now, quite undeniably, part of popular and universal culture.
It might be said that Coca-Cola was officially born on the day of the great Prohibition. However, this date does not match up with the chroniclers of the world’s most-consumed fizzy drink, who have spun from this tale a yarn as impenetrable as the famous 7X, to the point of denying that “Coca-Cola,” that is, the fizzy drink version of “French Wine Coca,” ever contained a single speck of coke. If it can be said, without falling into a sort of exaggerated partisanship, that the first step on the moon was inspired by Jules Verne, let us never forget that the first “Coke” was very much a French invention, even if, in a thousand years or less, Corsica became Italian, Sardinian, Moorish, Breton, or … Corsican.