Drink of the Week: Cuba Libre
We are just going to come right out and say it: This week’s DOTW is getting hijacked. Anyone who recognizes the Cuba Libre also knows that it’s just a fancy name for the popular Rum and Coke. Sure, there’s a squeeze of lime, and we’ll get to the drink itself.
Most of you are probably thinking, “But isn’t the formula for Coke one of the most guarded secrets on earth?” Well, yes and no. Many aspects of the recipe are known (the ingredients are written right on the can), but there is some truth to the story that only a select few individuals know the formula of the primary flavoring component. However, some very convincing evidence exists that the Original Recipe—the one first created by Coca Cola inventor John Pemberton back in 1886—may have been revealed in a newspaper photograph, hiding in plain sight since 1979.
Sharing the details of this evidence isn’t actually our story. It comes by way of the radio program, This American Life. Back on February 11th, 2011, Ira Glass aired a story in which he describes a photograph of an old pharmacy journal. The photo was published in a Georgia newspaper in 1979 and shows a leather-bound recipe book opened to a page with the title, “Coco-Cola Improved” listing every ingredient, quantity and procedure. It is widely known that back in 1886 when John Pemberton invented Coca Cola in reaction to the temperance movement in Atlanta, Georgia, he sold the recipe to several of his colleagues. This book happened to belong to one such associate and many years later it was re-discovered which led to the newspaper article in 1979.
A dusty old recipe journal that belonged to someone nobody remembers would hardly convince most people of the recipe’s authenticity, but Coke historian Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, confirmed that while researching his book in the Coca Cola Company archives, he was allowed to review Pemberton’s notebook. There in the notebook, in Pemberton’s own hand, is the exact same recipe, item-for-item in matching quantities. We would encourage you to check out the radio program yourself to hear how it all unfolds. It’s a fascinating story that includes the help of Jones Soda to whip up a batch along with taste tests and some interesting reactions from flavor experts and regular consumers. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions because the Coca Cola Company will never confirm that this recipe is correct. Nor will they file a lawsuit because doing so would require them to produce the actual formula.
It’s also important to recognize that this is a recipe for the original Coca Cola, not the Coke that is made today. The differences may be subtle, but there is certainly no claim that this is exactly what is sold in stores right now. We know for example that Coke made in the United States no longer uses cane sugar, (although you can buy Mexican Coke that does). We also know that they no longer use fresh lime juice, opting instead for the more stable lime oil. Citric Acid has been replaced with phosphoric acid. You get the idea.
What about the cocaine?
“Coca” isn’t just a playful reference. It’s true that cocaine was part of the original Coke recipe. In fact, the ingredients below include an item called FE Coca, or fluid extract of coca, but by 1903 the cocaine was removed leaving this extract as just another flavor component. Coke still uses it, but the coca leaves used to make the extract have had the cocaine taken out by the Stepan Chemical Company in Maywood, New Jersey. Stepan is the only company in the US that is licensed by the DEA to legally import Peruvian coca leaves. Cocaine-free coca leaves are perfectly legal and available as an herbal tea. Using them to make your own drug-free FE Coca is simple.
And the Caffeine?
The word cola is a reference to the kola nut, which is a natural source of caffeine. Eventually, caffeine citrate took its place making the nut unnecessary. This is probably one of the “improvements”. We chose to leave out the caffeine which might affect the flavor somewhat. We have read that caffeine imparts some bitterness, but to use the amount specified would result in a beverage five times more potent than what is typically used in soda today! We think we made the right decision to leave it out, but if anyone knows of a proper source for it, we might try another batch reducing the quantity to one-fifth.
That’s the fancy name Coke gives their secret flavoring. Cola is a complex beverage, but the key to building the right combination of natural flavors is to use essential oils. Oil and water don’t mix, and since the majority of the final product is water, you need the oils to emulsify. By mixing tiny amounts of the incredibly potent essential oils with pure alcohol, you stretch the oil drops into a flavoring solution that will more readily mix with the water-based ingredients. We have read that modern soft drinks take advantage of highly specialized emulsifying equipment capable of generating microscopic droplets at practically a molecular level. This results in a mixture that can remain stable in a can or bottle without separating for years. When it was first invented, bottling the product wasn’t a consideration. Like our version here, it was meant to be mixed up and consumed immediately.
Besides cocaine, the other controversial ingredient in Coke is all of that sugar. The final product has a pound of sugar per gallon of soda. The syrup also contains a fair amount of lime juice. If anything in this recipe took us by surprise it was the amount of lime juice. We had no idea there was so much. There’s also some vanilla and caramel coloring.
So, that’s the basic idea. It doesn’t sound too difficult, right? To make your own, you really have five basic steps:
1. Make FE Coca
2. Make Merchandise 7X
3. Make the basic syrup (using some of your FE Coca)
4. Add some 7X flavoring to your basic syrup
5. Combine the syrup with carbonated water
Actually, you are done with the recipe at step 4. Once you have the syrup, you can make Coke whenever you want by mixing it on the spot. This is similar to how we make ginger beer, so get that siphon ready or grab some club soda. The mixing in step 5 is exactly what happens every time you get Coke from a soda dispenser. You hold your glass under the spout and carbonated water mixes with syrup at a five-to-one ratio. Fascinating!
Making FE Coca
Get yourself some coca tea. We bought ours on Amazon. It arrived in little tea bags, so we had to cut them all open. The next thing we did was reduce the leaf particles in a blender to a powder, but this may not even be necessary. Using a food processor on dry ingredients doesn’t always work, but our coca tea had some pretty big pieces in it, so we figured a finer powder would lead to better extraction. To make the extract, you need a percolator or some vessel that can serve the same purpose. A percolator is a piece of lab equipment that is basically an open cylinder with a screen filter at the bottom where it then constricts like a funnel with a spigot. We don’t have a percolator, but we do have a Clever Coffee Dripper!
1 pound powdered coca leaf
6 oz diluted alcohol (60% abv)
Plus plenty more alcohol to saturate and rinse when straining
You could probably just use a mason jar and filter the result, but the idea is that you need to totally saturate the leaf matter with dilute alcohol and let it sit covered for 48 hours. According to the book A Treatise On Beverages or The Complete Practical Bottler by Charles Herman Sulz, you want to use ethyl alcohol at 60% strength. That’s 120 proof vodka, if you can find it, and if not, figure out the proportions and add water to some Everclear to get you to 60%. According to the book, a proper fluid extract of coca requires a pound of the leaf and 6 ounces of alcohol, plus more alcohol to saturate the leaf matter and even more to rinse when you strain the results. We’ll admit, there’s some ambiguity here if you are not familiar with this historic process, and since we had about 4 ounces of coca tea, we knew we would probably only end up with some fraction of a cup of extract. This would still be more than enough FE Coca to make so much cola it could rot the teeth of everyone we know.
Once we had a layer of alcohol covering the saturated coca tea, we stretched plastic over the top of the Clever Coffee Dripper and waited two days. In the end, it was the perfect tool to pull this off. We removed the plastic wrap and set the contraption over a glass jar and watched as our FE Coca came out deep olive green. Rinsing the leaves with more alcohol produced even more extract, but at some point we realized we would be diluting the flavor. However, the color continued to be a deep green, and in the end, using 100 coca tea bags, we produced about 6 ounces of finished coca extract.
We wondered if we could have saved some trouble and simply left all of that coca in the tea bags. That’s probably the best shortcut if you don’t have a percolator. The extract itself smells like green tea, and the pungent flavor is strong. Not much of this will go into the syrup, and before we started we wondered if it would be worth the effort or expense. But, after making the extract, it really wasn’t that hard after all, and when it came time to mix everything together, we were surprised how much aroma carried into the syrup from the tiny amount used.
Making 7X (the secret formula)
This part requires Everclear at full-strength. You really should have the 95% (190 proof) stuff. The 151 might work too, but we think it’s expected that you are mixing your essential oils with pure alcohol. Although it can be a challenge getting all of the essential oils (and they tend to be somewhat pricey), this was probably the easiest part of the whole operation. It’s ironic that the secret formula is actually the simplest part to execute.
8 oz alcohol
20 drops orange oil
30 drops lemon oil
10 drops nutmeg oil
5 drops coriander oil
10 drops neroli oil
10 drops cassia cinnamon oil
We used mostly Young Living essential oils which are food-safe and 100% pure organic. Neroli was a harder one to come by. You want everything you use in this whole process to be food-grade otherwise it can make you sick, and don’t use anything that has been cut with neutral oil. You need full-strength, 100% pure. Once you have the FE Coca and the 7X flavoring components, you can start making the syrup. You probably won’t need to make another batch of either ingredient for a long time. An eight-ounce bottle of 7X will probably last the rest of your life.
Making The Basic Syrup
Since we only made a gallon, we reduced everything by a factor of 5. First, dissolve the sugar in water. Have patience. It can take a while to get that much sugar to dissolve, but keep stirring! Then, add the caramel coloring. We used class IV caramel 050 coloring from DDWilliamson which is designed for acidic beverages, but we found we needed twice the amount indicated to match the color of modern Coke. Next, add your FE Coca. It’s amazing how little you add and how the smell fills the room. Add the vanilla extract, caffeine if you use any, lime juice and citric acid in that order.
.375 oz FE Coca (3/8 oz) or 180 drops
30 pounds sugar
3 oz citric acid
1 oz citrate caffeine
2.5 gal water
1 quart lime juice
1 oz vanilla
1.5 oz caramel coloring
The final step is to add your 7X flavoring to the basic syrup. It feels really exciting at this point, like you are participating in a time-honored ritual or building a magic potion. You need to add only .5 oz of 7X per 5 gallons of basic syrup. Our fractional reduction in quantity had us adding 7X by the drop. If you do a little research you find that most people calculate that there are 480 drops of liquid in one US fluid ounce, but drops per ounce will always depend on how thick the liquid is, or how much surface tension exists. We went with this common measurement and added 48 drops. If you are making the full 5 gallons of syrup you can measure a half ounce, but if you want to make less, do the math and add 7X with a clean eye dropper.
Mix up some cola using 1 part finished syrup to 5 parts carbonated water. We presented our homemade Coke the other day at an office pot luck and it was a big hit. Everyone loved it. Some said it was actually better than regular Coke. After first mixing the syrup, we detected a strong lime flavor in the finished soda, but over the course of several days refrigerated, it has mellowed quite a bit. After six days, the fresh citrus flavors have less impact in the final soda, and it’s getting very hard to distinguish it from the commercial product. If you decide to make this yourself, we’d be curious how yours turns out. And now, at long last, we come to our Drink of the Week. Of course, you can avoid all the hassle above and just buy some Coke to mix with Rum and a squeeze of lime, but what fun would that be?
2 oz white rum
.75 oz homemade cola syrup
3.75 oz carbonated water
squeeze of lime juice
Build in a glass with ice and give a stir to make sure the syrup mixes completely. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Lynden’s Soda Fountain is now serving this 1886 Cola recipe in their shop in St. Paul. Here’s a short video of our morning making the cola syrup described above: