Cola's Origins and Fascinating History

Tall glass of cola beverage with ice cubes

Coca Cola is often touted as the first cola. That is only partly true. While it was without a doubt the first commercially successful cola, the Coke recipe was at the time it emerged in the late 1800s just the latest iteration of a beverage idea that many people had been experimenting with for years. In this article we’re going to trace the origins of cola, how it rose to become the dominant soft drink flavor in the world and how a new vegan, all-natural soda is picking up the gauntlet from Coke and taking cola in exciting new directions.

Origins of Cola

The Coca Cola company played a seminal role in the establishment of the modern soft drink industry. Of that there can be no debate. When Dr. John Pemberton began shopping his cola recipe to pharmacies in 1886 he set in motion a series of events that would help transform popular culture. But his was not the first cola recipe.

Others had been experimenting with the same ingredients as Pemberton - vanilla, cinnamon, citrus oils, various acidic flavorings and caffeine from the kola nut (hence the name) - for many years, though no one had been able to generate much buzz around their beverages.

Pemberton's genius was to add a bit of cocaine to the mix and to market his product to pharmacies as a medicinal drink intended to cure digestive problems and provide a pick-me-up. His plan worked, and within a few years, Pemberton's syrup was being distributed throughout his native Atlanta and the surrounding area.

Maturity of the First Cola Product

Shortly after his Coca Cola product began to catch on Pemberton fell gravely ill and began selling off portions of his company to pay his medical expenses. In 1888 he sold his remaining interest to one Asa Chandler before dying just months later. Following Pemberton’s death Chandler would move aggressively to acquire rights to the secret Coca Cola recipe and the Coca Cola name and would expand distribution to markets in surrounding states.

Coca Cola's Success Breeds Competition

As the Coca Cola brand began to spread far and wide it attracted the attention of other enterprising men of the day. One of them was Caleb D. Bradham. Bradham owned a pharmacy in North Carolina and had agreed to sell Coca Cola at his in-store soda fountain. He was astonished at how quickly the drink caught on with his customers and decided to create his own cola drink so that A) he wouldn’t have to keep paying Coke for their syrup and B) he could enter the wider cola market - which consisted solely of Coke at the time - himself.

Bradham distinguished his beverage from Coca Cola in two important ways: he made it sweeter than Coca Cola (which at the time tended to have a slightly bitter taste) and he refused to add cocaine to his mix due to his own concerns about its potential dangers. Instead he relied entirely on caffeine from the kola nut to provide the pep for his new drink which he christened “Pepsi Cola”.

Pepsi enjoyed initial success, but shaky business practices and a lack of vision endangered the brand early on. It got to the point that shortly after World War I Pepsi had to declare bankruptcy. A strange fate for a company that should have been doing well.

Eventually, the company was sold to Charles Guth who saw the potential in the brand and instituted a disciplined and determined plan to turn things around. It worked. Guth's aggressive marketing campaign brought in the customers but his most important contribution to the history of soft drinks was his introduction of a 12-ounce, 5-cent bottle of Pepsi, which proved a huge success.


In time Guth would lose control of Pepsi to rival shareholders. Not long afterward Pepsi began to once again lose market share to Coke. By the early 1970s Pepsi was in dire straits and decided the best defense was a good offense and thus the “Pepsi Challenge” was born.

The Pepsi Challenge was a marketing campaign whereby people were blindfolded and given samples of both Coke and Pepsi and asked to state their preference. The tests were filmed and turned into TV commercials.

Pepsi wound up winning more often than Coke and while Coke objected, the tests were judged legit and the campaign turned out to be a huge win for Pepsi which for the first time in decades began to regain market share from Coke.

An Unlikely Challenger Enters the Market

For decades Coke, Pepsi and other soda giants controlled the soft drink world. But in the late 20th century a new challenger arose: bottled water. Bottled water was marketed as a healthier alternative to both tap water and sugary sodas. And while people were initially slow to adapt they eventually came around and by 2016 worldwide sales of bottled water surpassed worldwide sales of soda for the first time.

In response, companies like Coke began marketing sugar-free versions of their drinks with Diet Coke quickly becoming the 2nd most popular soft drink on the planet. The trend toward healthier beverages also prompted the rise of revolutionary new soft drink companies like Rocky Mountain Soda.

Rocky Mountain Colorado Cola takes cola in an even more health-conscious and eco-friendly direction. Our Colorado Cola natural soda is vegan, gluten free and kosher with no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the mix. It has a clean, crisp taste with none of the excessive sweetness of Pepsi or the medicinal aftertaste some people experience with Coke. Try it!