High Society

Alcohol isn’t the only mind-altering drug to have found its way into our drinks over the years, as Louise Crane discovers


"What’s the name of the Pope who liked to drink cocaine?” sounds like the set-up to a particularly lame punch line (Popa-Cola, anyone?) but it’s not. Pope Leo XIII was so fond of Vin Mariani, a 19th century French tonic wine containing cocaine, that he appeared on a poster promoting it. At the time, cocaine wasn’t the illicit substance it has now become, and its invigorating qualities were well regarded by many. Vin Mariani isn’t the only tonic wine to contain cocaine, but it is perhaps the most famous, bearing its crown alongside the most infamous narcotic soft drink, Coca-Cola. It’s no secret that this hugely popular beverage is named after its former ingredient, but you might be surprised how widespread drug-containing drinks were during the Victorian era.

When the French chemist Angelo Mariani read an influential scientific paper on the effects of coca, he was struck by what we might call divine inspiration. Coca is a plant native to South America, whose natives have chewed it for thousands of years to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. European colonialists discovered it in the 16th century, but it did not become popular across the Atlantic until this paper, written by Italian physiologist Paolo Mantegazza, was published in 1859. Mariani realised that if the effects Mantegazza described could be captured in an easily-consumable way, he could be onto a money spinner. In 1863, Mariani released “Vin Tonique Mariani (à la Coca du Pérou)”, combining Bordeaux wine and coca leaves from Peru. The ethanol in the wine extracted cocaine from the leaves to a level of 6mg per fluid ounce, though later, international rival wines that boasted even more cocaine in their solutions led Mariani to bump up the volume to 7.2mg per ounce for export. Mariani proclaimed his drink would “restore health, strength, energy and vitality” and reduce appetite.

Mariani also used the now-common trick of using celebrity endorsements to promote his brand as a performance enhancer for creatives and athletes. Aside from Pope Leo, who awarded Mariani a Vatican gold medal and appeared on a poster endorsing the coca wine, testimonials came from Charles-François Gounod, composer of Ave Maria and the opera Faust, and novelist Émile Zola. Thomas Edison claimed it helped him stay awake longer (quelle surprise) and Ulysses S. Grant drank it while writing his memoirs.

Copycat Pemberton’s French Wine Coca appeared in 1885, made by John S. Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia. When Atlanta introduced prohibition in 1886, Pemberton changed his recipe to a non-alcoholic, carbonated beverage, flavouring it with a syrup made with kola nuts - another, milder stimulant containing caffeine and theobromine. Pemberton had a hunch that his drink would become successful, calling it “a most wonderful invigorator of sexual organs,” but bankrupted by a morphine addiction, he sold his company in 1886. The man he sold to was Asa Candler. The company Candler formed? Coca-Cola. On September 12, 1919, Coca-Cola Company was purchased by a group of investors for $25 million.

Now, you might be asking yourself, why is it that these drinks contained cocaine, and nobody complained, or took them to the police? The simple answer is that cocaine was not illegal in the 19th century. Neither was opium, which appeared in tonics like Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, its advert decorated with cherubic children frolicking around a bottle (and most likely smacked off their chops). These substances were very much in the realm of medicine, employed for their curative properties. Cocaine was, and is, fantastic at numbing the pain of toothache (the safer substance engineered for use in modern dentistry is novocaine - literally ‘new cocaine’). 

Opium was one of the few remedies in the early Victorian doctor’s big leather bag that actually worked, since germs were yet to be discovered and illnesses were largely thought to travel on miasmas, or ‘bad air’. The painkilling properties of opium and its derivatives are second to none, and anyone who’s taken codeine or morphine will know that it constipates - a very effective treatment for diarrhoea, one of the biggest killers of children in those times. Opiates also stop you coughing, a welcome relief from the symptoms of consumption. Laudanum, a simple mix of opium and alcohol (usually sherry wine), had been used since the 1660s to treat practically every ailment.

Bhang is a cannabis drink used in traditional Hindu festivals such as Holi, Janmashtami, and Shrivratri, made from water, milk, fresh cannabis leaves and flowers, spices and honey. In parts of rural India, bhang is believed to cure fever, dysentery and sunstroke, as well as aiding in digestion, clearing phlegm, and even curing speech impediments. In historical times, warriors would drink bhang to steel their nerves, and newlyweds would consume bhang to increase their libido. British doctor Whitelaw Ainslie wrote about it in 1813, saying the larger leaves and capsules of the cannabis plant, called “bang, subjee, or sidhee,” were used to make “an intoxicating drink, for smoking, and in the conserve or confection termed majoon”. Later, Dr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish military doctor in India, extolled the virtues of cannabis to England upon his return in 1841, prescribing Queen Victoria cannabis for her period and labour pains, in the form of cannabis extract dissolved in alcohol. We’re sure she was very amused.

Today’s Coca-Cola actually still contains coca, but the narcotic compound has been removed

Things started to go downhill for these narcotic drugs when children started dying from overdoses, and cocaine transpired to be extremely addictive. Society began to turn against them and their ‘exotic’ origins, blaming the Chinese for opium deaths and using the drug to turn them into a scapegoat, justifying war in China. In America, cocaine became associated with drug use by black people, and blamed by racist politicians for black men enticing white women into relationships and miscegenation. Later, cannabis was blamed for the same. Increasing regulation, resulting in the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act of 1914, restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum, and coca derivatives in the US, while Britain followed with the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920. This was the death knell for mainstream sales of coca wine, laudanum and other opiate-based tonics, and manufacturers had to change their recipes or go bust. Coca-Cola had responded to social criticisms long before that, and removed the cocaine from its recipe in 1903

Today’s Coca-Cola actually still contains coca, but the narcotic compound has been removed so that it doesn’t have psychoactive effects. This extraction is done at a New Jersey chemical processing facility, where around 175,000 kilograms of coca are imported - enough to make more than £200 million worth of cocaine. Unsurprisingly, the facility is guarded. Laudanum is still used as a medicine, but toddlers are no longer knocking back bottles of cherry syrup laced with dope. Babies, however, are prescribed it for neonatal withdrawal syndrome (in cases where their mothers have been opioid addicts) but in very tightly controlled conditions. Adults might find themselves given it if they have a severe case of the runs. 

Cannabis beers are seeing a perhaps predictable resurgence, given the wave of rehabilitation that medical marijuana has seen across the States in the last few years and now that Canada will make weed legal on October 17th this year. Toronto start-up Province Brands is creating a beer that is brewed from the stalks, stem and roots of the cannabis plant, and there are many beers on the market that are flavoured with cannabis oil (without the psychoactive THC). If cannabis as medicine can be welcomed back with open arms, could we see the same for opium and cocaine? It’s unlikely we’ll be drinking to that soon, but time will tell.

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