May 8, 2023

John S. Pemberton Sells the First Glass of Coca-Cola

John S. Pemberton Sells the First Glass of Coca-Cola

May 8, 1886. American pharmacist John S. Pemberton sells the first glass of his new cure-all tonic, known as Coca Cola.


Cold Open

It’s April 16th, 1865 on a battleground in Columbus, Georgia before the final days of the American Civil War.

As night falls, Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John S. Pemberton and his fellow soldiers prepare to defend the city from approaching Union forces. Four years into the Civil War, John and his comrades are battle-hardened but tonight feels different than their past engagements.

As the men ride into battle, the fate of the Confederacy is heavy on their shoulders. The tide of war has already turned against the Confederates but the capture of Columbus would all but ensure a Union victory. As the largest remaining supply center for the Confederate army, Columbus is key, and John and his fellow soldiers are ready to stop at nothing to defend it. 

The sound of marching cavalry grows louder, and the ground beneath begins to shake as the two armies collide. The noise of battle is deafening... gunfire erupts in every direction. John's ears ring with the sounds of men dying around him. 

As John tries stubbornly to resist the enemy's advance, he meets the eyes of a Union soldier and locks himself into a swordfight. John's heart races as he blocks the soldier's every move, but he is growing tired.

Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his torso and looks down to see blood soaking his uniform. the Union soldier has stabbed him in what looks like a fatal blow. John tries to scream for help but his voice is too weak.

As his opponent leaves him for dead, John falls to his knees gasping for breath, and his fellow soldiers are swallowed up in the chaos.

While the Confederates will lose the Battle of Columbus, as this conflict will come to be known, John S. Pemberton will walk away injured and lucky to have survived at all. It will be John's last time on the battlefield. And shortly after, the nation's fighting will also cease. But even after the war's end, John and many others will find themselves up against a new painful battle. The agony of John's war wounds will cause him to become dependent on morphine. While America experiences its first opioid crisis, John will set out to develop a better alternative returning to his profession as a pharmacist eager to create a cure for the widespread pain sparked by war and addiction. To this end, John will concoct a drink that he hopes will relieve the people of their dependency on drugs and alcohol. He will call it Coca-Cola, billing the beverage as a cure-all tonic when he sells his first glass at his Atlanta pharmacy on May 8th, 1886.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is May 8th, 1886: John S. Pemberton Sells the First Glass of Coca-Cola.

Act One: Coca + Kola

It’s March 1885, and John S. Pemberton is in his backyard laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia.

It’s been 20 years since John was stabbed by a Union soldier during the Battle of Columbus. A slanting scar still remains on his chest down to his abdomen. But today it’s well hidden beneath John’s lab coat.

Since the end of the Civil War, John has been operating a successful pharmacy while also attempting to produce the perfect tonic to cure America’s many ailments. Two decades after the war’s end, there are still hundreds of thousands of veterans nursing lifelong injuries. In addition, Americans are now contending with a new sickness.

With the country in a state of flux, urbanization, industrialization, and the railroad have brought hustle, bustle, and competition to civilian lives. The pace of life has sped up so drastically that doctors have coined a term for a new disease: ‘neurasthenia’ - an illness of the nerves, brought on by the hectic modernization of society.

For many, the only way they know to soothe their pain and discomfort has been with alcohol or opioids. Addiction to drugs has become rife, and John is one of the countless men suffering from this expensive affliction.

Beside him on his work desk, amongst the myriad of tubes and metallic stands, is a bottle of Vin Mariani, a wine drink named after its creator, French chemist Angelo Mariani. According to its inventor, this concoction is far from just a normal alcoholic beverage; it’s a powerful health booster. It's been touted to improve mood, restore strength, increase energy, and inject vitality into its users. These claims have turned Vin Mariani into a sensation, with President Ulysses S. Grant and even the Pope stating their love for the beverage.

The drink contains a blend of Bordeaux wine with extracts from the coca leaf from South America. For over two thousand years, this leaf has been chewed by South Americans to enhance their digestion and energy. But the ethanol in Vin Mariani brings out one of the coca leaf’s most powerful compounds: cocaine.

This ingredient greatly interests John. He read in the British Medical Journal of the drinks' seemingly magical properties, learning that many in the medical community see coca leaves as a way to potentially cure morphine addiction. John has been searching for a drink like this for the last twenty years, and he has tasted countless cheap imitations made by wannabe millionaire entrepreneurs. But John knows there’s still a gap in the market for a properly distilled American version, and he feels like the perfect person to fill it. He has the pharmaceutical skills, the lived experience of drug addiction, and another special ingredient that will make his version of Vin Mariani even more powerful: kola nuts.

John has also read of the effect of kola nuts on the people of West Africa, where the plant is grown. They are stimulant similar to coca leaves, except their principal effective ingredient is caffeine instead of cocaine. A single nut contains more caffeine than a cup of coffee or tea.

And it is caffeine that John intends to exploit. He believes the apparent healing and energy-giving properties of the cocaine supplemented by the additional boost of the caffeine could have the power to not only soothe America’s ailing population but even re-energize them. But John has yet to find the right mix of ingredients to create a drink that’s both effective and tasty. So, today, he’s back in his lab trying to strike the right balance.

After a few hours of tinkering, distilling, and recording, John lifts what feels like the thousandth batch to his mouth. Blowing on it to cool it down, he purses his lips and slurps, smacking his lips to get the full flavor. After a few moments, his eyebrows raise, and soon he is spinning around the laboratory in joy. He has found the perfect blend.

Not long after John perfects his drink, he begins a marketing campaign to bring his new creation, named ‘Pemberton’s French Wine Coca,’ to market. He labels it as an all-curing panacean drink that will bring America back to its feet. And before long, John’s drink begins to fly off the shelves. In mid-June, he runs an ad claiming to have sold nearly 1000 bottles in a single day.

But, trouble lies on the horizon. In just a few months, the anti-alcohol temperance movement will pressure the Atlanta city government to pass local prohibition laws. Just when John finds success, he will be forced to adapt or fail.

Act Two: The First Coca-Cola

It’s November 25th, 1885, in Atlanta, Georgia, just a few months after John S. Pemberton started selling his ‘French Wine Coca’.

Church bells ring out as crowds of residents parade through the streets, celebrating the city’s new ban on alcohol.

Since the mid-1800s, the nation’s temperance movement has been gathering steam, encouraging drinkers to resist the temptation of alcohol. Prohibitionists tie the drink to the nation’s current social ills and have been rallying to rid society of its toxic influence. In Atlanta, these efforts recently came to a head. Local Prohibitionists were vocal and insistent enough to force an election on the issue. And today, its result was announced, and Prohibition was enacted.

The news has induced a considerable amount of anxiety in John Pemberton. While others celebrate, he ruminates on its implications for his business. He knows he needs to act fast to create an alcohol-free version of his French Wine Coca if he wants to get an edge on the competition. It’s a frustrating obstacle, but John welcomes the challenge.

As someone still enduring his own morphine addiction, and whose son also now struggles with the same, a part of John agrees that the removal of alcohol could only help to diminish the country’s wider culture of addiction. But John also knows that cutting out alcohol won’t single-handedly solve the drug addictions ravaging the country. Instead, he remains convinced that his coca drink could be another key instrument in alleviating the nation’s suffering.

So John returns to his backyard laboratory, determined to find the right non-alcoholic base for his beverage. But nothing seems to work. He tries oils and fruit flavorings, but they’re too bitter. He tries adding sugar, but it makes it too sickly sweet. It’s only after months of trial and error that he finds his perfect base: carbonated water. Upon first taste, he can barely believe it. The carbonation balances out the coca leaf and kola beans perfectly. It’s neither too sweet, nor too bitter. John notes down the formula and sets out about creating his first large batch.

On May 8th, 1886, the drink is ready for sale.

At a downtown pharmacy, John prepares to open shop, excited to debut the new and improved incarnation of his famous ‘French Wine Coca.’

He rummages around the storage room behind the counter. It’s filled from top to bottom, shelf upon shelf, with bottles of his new concoction. Maneuvering past the towering boxes, John reaches for and pulls out a chalkboard sign. In italic, flowing letters, he writes the words ‘New Today: Delicious and Refreshing Alcohol-Free Temperance Drink: Coca-Cola’. He places the sign outside the shop and flips the sign in the window from ‘closed’ to ‘open.’ Coca-Cola is now ready for public consumption.

After a few minutes, the pharmacy door swings open. A young customer walks to the desk and asks to try a glass of this new Coca-Cola drink. John smiles and requests 5 cents for a glass. The money is handed over and John carefully pours the dark, bubbling liquid. He watches intently as the customer sheepishly takes his first sip. And with widening eyes, the customer finishes the drink and places the glass back onto the counter, immediately asking for another.

John’s new Coca-Cola is a modest success. Each day, customers around Atlanta purchase the drink from their local pharmacies. And as Prohibition is more strongly enforced, John sees his new drink soar in popularity. But his success will be sullied by the persisting pains of addiction.

Coca-Cola won’t be the cure-all he hoped for. John will remain addicted to morphine himself, as will his son, Charles. John had once hoped Charles would be the one to carry on his business and continue expanding Coca-Cola’s reach. But this dream will never come to fruition. In time, John will be forced to accept that his mission to create the perfect curing tonic has failed, and he will prepare to leave his business behind. Despite Coca-Cola’s success, his morphine addiction will lead John toward poverty, and he will start selling off parts of his company to fund his habit —  a need that will only intensify when John develops stomach cancer and, just two years after selling his first glass of Coca-Cola, finds himself at death’s door.

Act Three: The Second First Coca-Cola

It’s August 16th, 1888, at John S. Pemberton’s home in Atlanta, two years after he started selling Coca-Cola.

John is lying in bed, suffering from the stomach cancer that has only worsened his morphine addiction. He is surrounded by his family; his wife, Ann, and his son Charles. John gazes at their faces, trying to absorb all the details of their features, but he struggles to keep his eyes open. Since developing cancer, John has been steadily growing weaker, and today he’s the feeblest he’s felt yet. He knows the end is quickly approaching. So as John stares death in his face, he is forced to reckon with his legacy.

Coca-Cola is thriving, but John no longer has any hand in the business he created. After becoming intrigued with the drink, businessman, and druggist Asa Griggs Candler offered John $2,300 for the recipe and majority ownership of the company. John accepted, and now Asa is mass producing the drink to bring it to a wider market.

But the fate of Coca-Cola concerns John far less than the future of his son. Even amid his own battles with addiction and cancer, his son’s struggles have been one of his greatest sources of pain. As he lies on his deathbed, John pleads with his son Charles to take care of himself, not to end up how he has. It may be too late for John, but he urges his son to keep fighting against his own addiction.

Later that day, John passes away at the age of 57. Six years later, his son Charles will also pass away after overdosing on opium. Neither will ever see the extreme heights that Coca-Cola will reach after Asa Griggs Candler takes the drink to international prominence. Though the beverage will fail to fulfill John’s original hope to help those like himself suffering with pain and addiction, it will go on to become the most famous soft drink of all time, a trajectory that would have been hard for John to fathom when he sold his first glass of Coca Cola in a quaint Atlanta pharmacy on May 8th, 1886.


Next on History Daily. May 9th, 1960. The United States Food and Drug Administration changes American society by approving the first birth control pill.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Katrina Zemrak.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Luke Lonergan.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.