This ledger, photographed in 1979 by Charles Salter for his Georgia Rambler column, may contain the secret formula for Coca-Cola.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Has Coca-Cola's secret recipe been cracked?

Move over, WikiLeaks. A nationally syndicated public radio show claims to have released one of America's most closely guarded secrets -- the recipe for Coca-Cola -- and it's causing an international frenzy.

"This American Life" found the list of ingredients deep within the archives of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, in a 1979 column by Charles Salter. The radio segment aired on various public radio stations over the weekend.

By Tuesday, story had gone viral on the Internet and on Twitter; the radio show's website buckled for the first time ever under the weight of unprecedented traffic; the story had appeared in languages ranging from Portuguese to Arabic; and reporters and executives for "This American Life" and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution were getting media requests from around the world.

"I think other people are having the same reaction to this when I had when I first saw this article in the AJC. This supposedly secret recipe has been hiding in plain sight for 30 years,"This American Life" host Ira Glass said Tuesday. "I think we all know Coca-Cola. We all have heard about the incredible secrecy. But no no, it’s not a secret. It’s been sitting out there for years."

Indeed, the Coca-Cola Company has for decades cultivated a mystique surrounding its trademark formula, even calling it by the cloak-and-dagger name "Merchandise 7x." The actual recipe is claimed to be kept under lock and key in a vault accessible by only two Coca-Cola employees.

Beverage industry analyst John Sicher wasn't surprised by the buzz surrounding the story. He says anyone can replicate Coca-Cola, but not its brand.

"Today, anybody with access to a sophisticated chemistry laboratory could analyze the formula of Coke, but no one can call a product called Coke other than the Coca-Cola Company," said Sicher, editor and publisher of "Beverage Digest." "The so-called 'secret formula' is a wonderful story of lore and mystery, but in reality, the value today is the brand, not the formula."

The urban myth-busting website classifies much of the lore as no more than clever marketing. Coca-Cola has used tales of Cold War-worthy secrecy measures, says, "to enhance consumer perception of Coca-Cola’s specialness ... the belief that anything so closely guarded must be special indeed."

Glass stumbled upon the recipe while reviewing Salter's "Georgia Rambler" columns. The ingredients include coca -- of course -- as well as coriander, caramel, neroli oil and cinnamon. (The list also includes alcohol, a component that Coca-Cola says has long been absent from the mix.)

Salter, who is related to a "This American Life" producer, retired in 1998 but remains in Atlanta. He said he got the recipe from former fishing buddy, pharmacist Everett Beal, in 1979.  Beal had found the recipe years earlier, written in a more than century-old hand-written ledger, Salter said.

"Everett said very casually, ‘Charles, I think I have something that might interest you," he said. "As a columnist, I could hear the bells ringing. I thought holy mackerel, this is going to be a good column whether it’s the right formula or not."

Salter took the recipe, which he photographed from Beal's ledger, to Coca-Cola's public relations team. The company laughed off the possibility that he had struck gold.

"He said ‘I can just about assure you this is not what you think it is,' " Salter said. "He said a very, very small number of people know the formula. It’s locked in the vault."

Coca-Cola's public relations strategy hasn't changed much in the 32 years since.

Spokeswoman Kerry Tressler denies that "This American Life" cracked the code. Coca-Cola's archivist, Phil Mooney, participated in the broadcast and tasted a batch brewed according to the recipe. He said it didn't quite replicate the soda.

" ‘This American Life,' along with many other third parties, have tried over time to crack our secret formula," Tressler said. "At the end of the day, there is only one ‘real thing.' "

Salter said Beal, who died last year, believed to the end that he had an original recipe and was even working on a book about his findings. But neither man received the kind of attention generated by the radio story.

"It does show the changing times of the instant transmission of news," he said. "As a retired newspaper man, I can tell you I am gratified that something I wrote in 1979 has still attracted attention and interest."

Glass, for his part, said he believes Salter and Beal did indeed find an original recipe. Glass's team consulted historian Mark Pendergrast, author of "For God, Country and Coca-Cola," and compared the recipe to another believed to have been used by the creator of the Coca-Cola syrup, John Pemberton.

"I believe that Pemberton himself made this recipe, either as his first version of Coca-Cola or as one of the versions early on in trying to make this stuff," Glass said.

In any case, he said that in the course of doing his research, he rediscovered his love for Coke. Before this story, Glass said, he hadn't  consumed one in at least two decades.

Now, he said, he's become addicted to the beverage. "I feel like Coke has had its revenge on me, because I’ve become a customer."

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