The Secret Coke Recipe on "This American Life?" My Dad Found That

Ira Glass and crew have caused quite a stir with a radio show in which they rediscover what may have been an early formula for Coca-Cola. The one my father, Charles Salter, found in 1979.

Maybe you heard the story that went viral today about how the original recipe for Coke may have been revealed after being closely guarded by the company for 125 years. ABC, CBS, NPR, Time, USAToday, Al Jazeera English—everybody’s on the case. Maybe you’ve seen the photo of the hand-written recipe in question (above). My dad, Charles Salter, took that photograph 32 years ago as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The column was called the "Georgia Rambler." He’d travel the state looking for colorful people and places, often stories with a historical bent. One of his best sources was the late Everett Beal, a fishing buddy of his who worked as a pharmacist in Griffin, Ga. One day, Everett showed my dad his prized possession, a leather-bound book of recipes that had once belonged to a pharmacist named John Pemberton. The John Pemberton who created the original syrup to make Coke.

“Coco Cola Improved” was scrawled by hand on page 188, above a list of ingredients. My dad asked Everett if he thought it was the original formula for Coke. “I believe it is,” Everett told him. This is that formula:

Fluid extract of Coca: 3 drams USP
Citric acid: 3 oz
Caffeine: 1 oz
Sugar: 30 #
Water: 2.5 gal
Lime juice: 2 pints (1 qrt)
Vanilla: 1 oz
Caramel: 1.5 oz or more to color
The secret 7X flavor (use 2 oz of flavor to 5 gals syrup)
Alcohol: 8 oz
Orange oil: 20 drops
Lemon oil: 30 drops
Nutmeg oil: 10 drops
Coriander: 5 drops
Neroli: 10 drops
Cinnamon: 10 drops

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, my dad showed a photo of the recipe to Coke and asked them the same question. “We don’t as a company comment on or confirm or deny any information you present to us about the formula for Coca-Cola,” my Dad quoted a spokesman saying.

You would think a column blowing the lid off Coke’s big secret would be front-page news in its home-town paper. A column with a photo of the recipe. But on February 18, 1979, “Is It Real Thing in Old Book?” ran inside the local news section, on 2B. And that was that. Remember, this was pre-Internet. This was even pre-cable news. CNN wouldn’t launch for another year. So the Coke column remained a favorite story my dad would recount, and he’d bring out that old photo of the recipe book cradled in Everett Beal’s weathered hands.

Fast forward three decades. Last year "This American Life" did a Georgia Rambler show inspired by the column. When my wife, a producer on the show, shared the Coke column, host Ira Glass was intrigued: What if it was the real recipe? What if he could make it and taste it for himself?

The episode, called "Original Recipe," aired last weekend. Glass and producer Ben Calhoun delve into all things Coke. How only two employees know the flavor formula (aka Merchandise 7X) at any given time. How coca leaves used in the production of Coca-Cola have been de-cocainized since 1903. And how virtually the identical soda recipe appears in one of Pemberton’s notebooks in the company’s own archives. Author Mark Pendergrast found it and included it in his 1993 book, For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It.

But the best part of "This American Life"’s cola journey is when Glass and Calhoun find a way to make the recipe. My dad didn’t do that. Neither did Pendergrast, the historian. Jones Soda, working with its flavor partner, Sovereign Flavors, whips up a batch. After tinkering with the mix to account for modern flavoring technology, they produce something that’s as close to replicating Coke as you’re likely to get.

The case for this being one of the original Coke recipes is circumstantial and anecdotal, but pretty compelling, all things considered. And that was enough for the Coke story to explode online like a soda can that had been rolling around in the back of a car forever. A story on the Today Show's site sent 80,000 readers to This American Life's site yesterday. Overnight, the story hit in Australia. Then Russia. India. The U.K. 

“Is This the Real Thing?” asked London’s Daily Mail, in an echo of my dad’s original headline. Salon went even further: “‘This American Life’ Reveals Original Coca-Cola Recipe.” And the AJC? "Has Coca-Cola's Secret Recipe Been Cracked?" is the lead story on its site. 

When I saw the story taking off this morning, I called my dad. The Georgia Rambler is retired and still living in Atlanta. He often spends mornings at the mall with his buddies. He used to call it his walking group. For the most part, they sit at Starbucks for an hour and visit. They drink coffee.

Me: Dad, have you been online this morning?

Dad: No, no, what’s going on?

Me: Well, it has nothing to do with Egypt. The Coke story that ran this weekend? It’s all over the place. The Daily Beast has it. The London Telegraph. It’s a top ten business story on Google News.

Dad: You’re kidding! After 30 years? You know, when I saw it in Everett’s book, the bells went off.

This time, everybody else’s bells went off, too. Good luck getting on the "This American Life" website. It crashed today under the weight of traffic. "Our website has never gone down," Glass told the AJC, "We're the biggest podcast in the country and we're used to a lot of traffic."

After 30 years, Coke’s response to its secret-formula getting out hasn’t changed. When my editor contacted the company just now, Kerry Tressler, a spokeswoman, said, "Basically 'This American Life' and many other parties over time have tried hard to crack the secret formula of Coca-Cola, but try as they might there truly is only one real thing."

Classic Coke.

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3 Comments

  • jamie

    I think that a syrup made from Garcinia_humilis is the secret ingredient. any other ideas?

  • Samuel Campbell II

    At 9:25 EST, This American Life's main website is still down!!! (What a time to find out that your site can't handle the traffic. Pssst, try Media Temple next time). Apparently their Facebook page is available and you can get the podcast via iTunes as well. Interesting story to say the least...