The idea of secrecy remains one of the most potent elements in all of commerce. From a music business standpoint, we've seen just how powerful and beneficial unexpected albums have been for the likes of Drake, D'Angelo, Beyoncé and others. In the world of tech, there are overarching concepts that bitter rivals are trying to achieve, but a murkiness as to how close each entity is to attaining its goals. In fashion, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the the Air Jordan 31 illuminated aspects of Nike's strategies regarding leaks and secrecy, which relied on releasing fake prototypes.
Simply put, the more buttoned up a company is, the greater the potential they have to endure fluctuations in trends.
Believe it or not, food and beverage secrets remain some of the most highly-guarded because cooking lends itself to trying to replicate a dish/drink. If this can be achieved, restaurants run the risk of losing billions of dollars when the consumer chooses to eliminate the middleman from their plates.
For example, KFC's Original Recipe - featuring 11 herbs and spices that are inscribed in pencil on a yellowed piece of paper - sit inside a Louisville, Kentucky safe. To ensure that no one can figure out what those exact spices are, a computer at a separate supplier blends the ingredients so no single supplier knows the whole recipe.
McDonald's claims there is no "secret" to their golden fries, but they have also refused to elaborate on their cooking techniques regarding fry temperature, and whether or not their "freeze-and-fry" technique figures prominently into their taste.
Finally still, Coca-Cola's secret recipe is perhaps the most-guarded culinary secret in existence. In fact, when faced with having to reveal the specific ingredients after India insisted it do so back in 1977, Coca-Cola simply left the country.
Coca-Cola was the brainchild of Dr. John Pemberton, a Civil War veteran from Georgia, who had emerged from the conflict with a morphine addiction. He hoped that the cocaine element to his homemade tonic would mimic the effects of Parisian chemist Angelo Mariani's "Vin Marian" concoction, which was created in 1863 and produced euphoric effects for the drinker.
Marketed as "French Wine Coca," it was said to be a "wonderful and delightful remedy" whose active coca ingredient was "a most wonderful invigorator of sexual organs [that] will cure seminal weakness".
Pemberton's elixir was ultimately made taboo during the era not because of the cocaine element, but because of the alcohol that was contained inside which didn't fit in with the practices of his Georgia county which enacted prohibition measures 34 years before the passage of the 18th Amendment.
Pemberton remained a step ahead. He replaced the wine in the formula with sugar syrup. His new product debuted in 1886: "Coca-Cola: The temperance drink."
Asa Candler, an early president of the Coca-Cola company - who bought the formula in 1887 - worried rivals would obtain this new recipe so he insisted no one ever write it down again and instead opted for quality control in which staff identified products only by sight and smell.
In 1899, Coca-Cola debuted in its now-ubiquitous glass bottle form. Subsequently, this moved the drink out of the segregated spaces of the soda fountain.
According to The New York Times, "Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that 'negro cocaine fiends' were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them."
Thus, Coke caved to white fears in 1903 and removed the cocaine and added more sugar and caffeine to Pemberton's original recipe.
Fluid extract of Coca: 3 drams USP Citric acid: 3 oz Caffeine: 1 oz Sugar: 30 (unclear quantity) Water: 2.5 gal Lime juice: 2 pints, 1 quart Vanilla: 1 oz Caramel: 1.5 oz or more for 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
In 1919, Ernest Woodruff and a group of investors purchased the company from Candler and his family and insisted the formula be written down. This recipe was placed in a vault in the Guaranty Bank in New York where it stayed until the deal was made official in 1925. At that point, Woodruff reclaimed the secret formula and returned it to Atlanta and placed it in the Trust Company Bank, now SunTrust Bank, where it remained through 2011 when Coca-Cola opened up a permanent installation highlighting the secrecy in an exhibit at the World of Coca-Cola entitled, "The Vault of the Secret Formula."
"The move of the Coca-Cola secret formula is a historic moment for the company," said Phil Mooney, Director of Archives, The Coca-Cola Company. "The Company has always gone to great lengths to protect it and now by safeguarding it at the World of Coca-Cola, we can share its legendary legacy with people around the world."
“The company has always said, and as far as I know it’s true, that at any given time only two people know how to mix the 7X flavoring ingredient,” said Mark Pendergrast, historian and author of For God, Country and Coke. “Those two people never travel on the same plane in case it crashes; it’s this carefully passed-on secret ritual and the formula is kept in a bank vault.”
While Pendergrast's explanation certainly ups the sexiness of the beverage, it makes much more sense for multiple people to know the recipe given the sheer volume of their products being sold around the world.
"Not a lot of people know," said Coca-Cola marketing manager Jacquie Wansley, "We don't know how many people know."
In February 2011, This American Life published a story in which they claimed to have revealed Coca-Cola's original secret after unearthing a newspaper column published in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution from February 18, 1979 that showed a hand-written copy of John Pemberton’s formula.
Not only did it seem like the Real McCoy, but it was essentially the same recipe that Mark Pendergrast had revealed in his 1993 book.
"This was an amazing discovery," said host Ira Glass when he revealed the recipe on the weekly radio broadcast, "I got into this wondering if it might be possible that this super-secret recipe had been hiding in plain sight, in an old newspaper clipping, but once I learned it matched this recipe in Coke's own archives, written by the creator of Coke – it was hard not to get very excited."
This American Life ultimately partnered with Seattle-based Jones Soda, and California-based Sovereign Flavors, to produce a batch of "Coke" to see if the recipe would mimic the taste and consistency of the beverage.
According to the official press release from This American Life, "The recipe has several known differences with Coca-Cola's current formula. It uses sugar instead of the current sweetener, high fructose corn syrup. It uses citric acid, where current Coca-Cola – like most modern sodas – is known to use phosphoric acid. It uses lime juice; the current recipe is believed to use lime oil. Ultimately, however, the team was able to make a version of the recipe that fooled one expert – and to their surprise, was preferred 6-to-4 in an informal taste test in a Brooklyn supermarket."
One of the reasons people believe it is impossible to replicate the taste of Coca-Cola is because, to this day, it is still flavored with a non-narcotic extract from coca - the plant from which cocaine is derived.
Randy Donaldson, a company spokesman, told The New York Times in 1988, "Ingredients from the coca leaf are used, but there is no cocaine in it and it is all tightly overseen by regulatory authorities."
Specifically, Coca-Cola uses Stepan Co. of Maywood, New Jersey, to process the ingredient to remove the drug and are believed to own the sole license from the DEA for this purpose after legislation was included in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, the Jones-Miller Act of 1922, and subsequent counternarcotics legislation that allowed “decocainized coca leaves or preparations therefrom” to be sold in the United States which people jokingly referred to as, "Coca-Cola joker” because it was clearly designed to protect Coke’s secretive coca business.
Coca-Cola even experimented with growing experimental coca plants on the island of Kaui in hopes of producing the vital product for Coca-Cola without having to import it. Dubbing it "Project Alakea," the plants kept mysteriously dying as they experimented with keeping them "high in flavor," but "low in alkaloidal content."
In a tough market, brand experts credit Coke's strength in the marketplace with the mystery around the much-hyped "secret recipe."
"The very idea of mystery attracts attention, and is often seen as an element of quality," said social psychologist and marketing expert Ben Voyer, lecturer at London School of Economics and ESCP Europe Business School. "A typical consumer would think that it must be a valuable product if they are doing all these things to protect the recipe."
For more Coke coverage, check out their recent capsule collection with BAPE.