In their ’70s ad campaign, Coca-Cola is presented as the key to world peace, the one thing that will unite nations and make us all say, “Yes, we are all the same because we love Coke.” Sadly, that hasn’t panned out. But while Coca-Cola may not have solved all of the worlds’ problems, the company has perfected their flagship product, which simultaneously has a great taste and can strip the rust off an old nail. Where does that taste come from? And why do they keep it such a secret?
What’s the deal with the secret recipe?
The man who created Coca-Cola, John Pemberton, let only four people know the secret formula to his magical elixir when he was on his deathbed. A few years later, a fellow named Asa Chandler bought the official recipe from his estate, changed it up a bit, and started the Coca-Cola Company. Chandler and later owners really played up the secrecy of the recipe, going so far as to create a vault at their Atlanta headquarters to keep it safe. To this day, there are rumors that only two executives know the formula at any given time and they are not allowed to fly on the same plane. Today, the recipe is kept at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, GA, where it is on display—in a vault.
While it all sounds right out of some Skull & Bones secret society, the truth, sadly, isn’t that thrilling. Coke syrup is made of nine different “merchandises”—mystery combinations of ingredients that are all mixed together at different stages. Some of them are known, some of them are not known. But there are far more than two people who know what is in them. This big secrecy ploy has primarily served as a marketing technique for Coke. And they have vehemently denied the veracity of any historical recipes that have been put out into the world.
There is, however, a built-in fail safe if the recipe were ever leaked. One of the ingredients in Coca-Cola is the extract of the coca plant leaves. The coca plant not only lends its flavor to Coke, it is also the source of everyone’s favorite disco pick-me-up, cocaine, which is obviously illegal in the United States. There is only one company in the entirety of the U.S. that is allowed to legally import the coca leaves: Stepan’s Company, based in New Jersey. And Stepan’s Company has only one customer, and you can guess who that is. So, even if you have the recipe, good luck recreating it without the help of Stepan.
So what flavor is Coke?
Despite Coke’s distinctive taste, the ingredients that go into it aren’t so different from the ingredients that go into a standard cola. Two of the big ones are vanilla and cinnamon, followed by some kind of citrus oil like orange, lime, or lemon. Each brand then adds what are called “trace flavorings”—small amounts of spices, oils, and other ingredients that give the brand’s specific cola its distinctive taste. For Coke, one of those trace flavorings is nutmeg.
If you want to really get into the weeds regarding the different flavors in a cola, there was a 2014 study (that I am too stupid to understand) that broke down the aromatics present in the top three U.S. cola brands. Peruse at your leisure.
What about the flavors of Coke variations?
For those of us who remember the horrific Cola Wars of the 1980s, we shudder to think of any tampering with the classic formula. But Coke has had some success with flavors throughout the years. Adding cherry or vanilla to their classic formula has worked out great for them, harkening back to the era of the local soda fountain.
Recently, Coke has released a few limited edition versions of their product, all with varying flavors and inscrutable names.
- What flavor is Coke Starlight
Coke Starlight is a red-hued cola released in 2022 as a collaboration between Coke and NASA. Fans have described it as a vanilla-tinged marshmallow or cotton candy flavor.
- What flavor is Coke Dreamworld
This version is very citrus-forward but, if you ask Coke marketing gurus, it tastes like “dreams.”
- What flavor is Coke Move
This one is a collaboration with someone named Rosalia (I’m an old Millennial, someone help me) that has been described as both tasting of bubblegum and some kind of tropical vanilla-coconut concoction.
If Coca-Cola wants to innovate, fine. However, they better not stray away from their not-so-secret formula and send us plunging into a new Cola War. I lost a lot of friends in the last one (Pepsi fans, those sick freaks).