The Caffeine-Packed Nut That Once Defined The Iconic Coca-Cola Taste

Coca-Cola has been around for so long that it's sometimes hard to remember its origins, including where it got its iconic name. The "coca" part comes from the coca leaf, which, yes, is the same ingredient that is extracted to make cocaine — the earliest recipes of Coca-Cola did, in fact, contain cocaine. Meanwhile, the "cola" part of the name comes from the kola nut, which was another key ingredient in the popular soda. The name of the drink was suggested by Frank M. Robinson, the bookkeeper of Coca-Cola inventor John Pemberton, who thought that two Cs would make for better advertising.

The kola nut, which comes from the West African coast, is a caffeine stimulant. Kola nuts have been highly valued in West Africa dating back centuries, with the nuts being utilized as various ceremonies, such as weddings. A sign of luxury, they were chewed often by those who could afford them — and with its addictive quality, it certainly required wealth to keep up the habit. As for the taste, the kola nut itself is nothing like the very sweet Coca-Cola that it is used to make, but rather has a taste that is quite bitter. However, when the kola nut has been chewed, it then helps to intensify the sweetness of whatever food or drink you consume right after chewing the nut.

The evolution of Coca-Cola

Pemberton was inspired by another popular drink called Vin Mariani (created by French chemist Angelo Mariani in 1863), which consisted of red wine mixed with cocaine — he created Pemberton's French Wine Coca, essentially using the recipe except for his addition of the kola nut. This eventually evolved into Coca-Cola, with Pemberton nixing the red wine and finding other flavors to mix with coca leaf and the kola nut in order to produce the Coca-Cola syrup, which could be added to carbonated water to make the soda. After crafting this concoction in May 1886, Pemberton — who originally combined kola and cocaine as an attempt to find a morphine-free painkiller (Pemberton was a morphine addict) — took it to Jacobs' Pharmacy where it was taste-tested. It was then sold for five cents per cup.

In the early 20th century, the company decided to use "decocainized" coca leaves as a response to the rising stigma against cocaine as a drug. Another original ingredient it doesn't contain? The kola nut. Although, it seems to be pretty unknown as to why the kola nut was taken out of the recipe — although it likely has to do with the intention to lower the amount of caffeine in the drink (now, a Coca-Cola has just about a quarter of the amount that a cup of coffee has). Instead, they use artificial ingredients to imitate the flavor of the kola nut. As for the exact recipe of Coca-Cola, it remains a very tightly kept secret.