Saturday, June 2, 2012

Did Charles Salter (The Georgia Rambler) Stumble Upon the Formula for Coca-Cola in the 1970s?

For many years, Charles Salter wrote a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called "The Georgia Rambler."  Traveling the state in his 1975 Chevy Station Wagon, he visited lots of interesting places and met a lot of interesting people.  Recently, having retired from his work, Salter penned a book chock full of his adventures, many of them a retelling of some of the stories that graced the pages of the state's largest newspaper.  The book, rightfully titled The Georgia Rambler, contains a hodgepodge of stories about war veterans, animal oddities, snakes, uniquely talented individuals, and, what is my favorite story, the account of his running in to a pharmacist who has what might be an early recipe for the "elixir of life"- Coca-Cola.

According to his book, Salter ran across this recipe while visiting a pharmacist, Everett Beal, in the late 1970s.  Beal, who received a recipe book from another pharmacist some time before this, inspected his gift to find that there was what looked like a recipe for "Coco-Cola Improved."  Written in brown ink on two pages, the recipe included things that Salter mentioned might be hard to find today.  Included among the ingredients were "...coca, or fluid extract coca, alcohol, nutmeg, prunes, cinnamon, caramel, sugar water, citric acid, vanilla extract, lime juice, lemons, oranges, and caffeine" (Salter 133-134). Intrigued by what he found, Salter took a photo of the book and formula and set up a meeting with a representative from the Coca-Cola Company.  Of course, the man with whom he met could not comment on whether or not this was an old recipe for Coca-Cola.  However, he kept the photograph.

                                         (Salter and a copy of the photo of the alleged recipe.)
                                              Photo courtesy of

What is more interesting than the original find of this possible formula was the uproar it created, albeit over 30 years later.  Appearing in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1979 right after his visit with the officials at the Coca-Cola Company, not much came of the Salter discovery. However, Ira Glass, host of the popular show, This American Life, happened upon the column in 2010 and ran with it.  As a matter of fact, he tried out the recipe. Glass contacted Jones Soda and together with their flavor partner, Sovereign Flavors, the recipe came to life.  According to one chapter in the book written by Salter's son Chuck, "Along the way, This American Life also compared the formula to one in Coke's own archives.  It was in a notebook that belonged to John Pemberton, the pharmacist who invented Coke.  The two formulations are virtually identical, except that the one my dad wrote about included the ingredient amounts.  It was written in a pharmacy recipe book believed to belong to a friend of Pemberton's" (Salter 137)  What Glass surmised was that the recipe was indeed one of the original recipes, or a later improvement.  Interestingly enough, avid Coke drinkers could tell the difference, but some corporate flavor experts could not discern the recipe from the drink currently produced by the Coca-Cola Company.  The show aired in 2011, and it went viral.  The show's website crashed because of so many hits, and people from all over the world became interested in the story.  Coca-Cola even got in on the publicity, running ads giving the link to the story and the website address.  Afterall, free publicity is good!

So did Salter stumble upon the Coke formula? It sort of sounds as if he did. But, who knows?  What I do know is that the original formula is a closely-guarded secret. According to officials at Coca-Cola, only four or five people alive know the formula, and they do not tell who those people are. The formula stays tightly guarded in an Atlanta bank vault, according to officials at the company, but they do not say which bank.

I highly recommend Salter's book.  I was supposed to do a book signing with him back in October, but a trip to Toronto for a teaching conference called me away.  The book is full of amazing stories, but none are better, to me at least, than the story about one of the greatest mysteries in Georgia history-the secret formula for the most popular drink in the world.  Have a Coke and A Smile!!  (You know I had to do it!)

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