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Everything Old Is New Again

By Michael Schiaparelli · February 18th, 2009 · Fermentations

Movie theaters are filled with films based on TV shows and classic novels, remakes, sequels and prequels to past hits. The world of beverages also frequently looks to the past for “new” ideas. Locally, Greg Hardman has successfully resurrected classic Cincinnati beer brands like Christian Moerlein.

Cocktails are regularly rescued from obscurity by bartenders digging through ancient bar guides for “inspiration.” And absinthe, the wormwood-based spirit famous for its addictively psychoactive properties, has recently reappeared on the U.S. market. Add to that list Coca Wine, a popular 19th-century beverage whose time has, perhaps, come again. It’s marketed by a British company called Mariani Amalgamated, a reference to Vin Mariani (or Mariani’s Wine).

Angelo Mariani was a Corsican chemist who, like many Victorian-era entrepreneurs, was fascinated by the potential physical (and economic!) effects of a peculiar New World plant called Coca. In the 1860s, he blended red Bordeaux wine with coca leaves — and a legend was born. Now, as I understand it, ingesting cocaine produces two main metabolizing compounds, neither of which has any extreme physical or psychological effect.

When combined with alcohol, however, the liver produces a third, powerfully psychoactive compound — cocaethylene — that blocks dopamine transporters, creating an addictive rush of exhilaration.

As you likely know, cocaine comes from South America, where locals sometimes suck on wads of dried coca leaf mashed with saliva and powdered lime to create a positive mood. (Interestingly, Ray Kelly, former New York police commissioner has famously raved that, “Colombia has probably the best cocaine, the best heroin and the best marijuana in the world. And the best coffee.”)

Vin Mariani likely had a similar effect; in fact, their advertising slogan promised that it, “Fortifies and refreshes body and brain/Restores health and vitality.” Similar products abounded, even offered through the Sears Roebuck catalog, which promised, “In the same space of time, more than double the amount of work could be undergone when Peruvian Wine of Coca was used, and positively no fatigue experienced.”

Vin Mariani even inspired Atlanta chemist John Pemberton to develop Coca Cola, hailed as “Pemberton’s French wine coca” in early advertisements. (Sugar syrup replaced the wine when Prohibition came to Atlanta in the mid-1880s; the active coca came out in 1904.) But Mariani’s wine was the most popular, reportedly imbibed by writers, actors, composers and heads of state.

Devotees included England’s Queen Victoria, the Shah of Persia and President William McKinley. Even Pope Leo XIII, who was prominently featured in contemporaneous advertisements, granted it a papal seal of approval and a gold medal. (See ad above).

While Vin Mariani originally included about 7.2 milligrams of coca per ounce, don’t expect to get high from the new product, which actually hails from Peru. The press release from Mariani Amalgamated cautions that “denatured coca leaves” will be used for “markets where coca-based products are not permitted.”

And that, unfortunately, would be us.

CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: mschiapa@cinci.rr.com. Fermentations runs in this space once a month.



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