Introduced in the 1880s, Coca-Cola was so popular by the early 1900s that its success was creating considerable envy among rivals. Even illiterates could recognize the product from the distinct shape of its bottles. In those years, according to soft drink historian Charles David Head, there were more than 150 Coca-Cola wannabes flooding the market with variations on the famous carbonated sugar water. Over at Mental Floss, Jack Rossen has the strange story of boldest and most successful of these Coke ripoffs: Koca-Nola, the creation of an Atlanta pharmacist named Thomas Austin. Doing business practically in the shadow of Coke headquarters, Austin decided to claim his own share of the soft drink market, and he had three secret weapons: aggressive advertising, low prices, and plenty of cocaine.
As the article explains, Koca-Nola was practically the Tony Montana of carbonated beverages, as its rise and fall can both be tied to cocaine. The narcotic was a legal if controversial ingredient in soft drinks until 1914, when it was finally banned. Many colas, including Coke, used it to give customers a “boost.” But Austin falsely advertised Koca-Nola as being “dopeless” and “absolutely harmless.” In truth, his creation contained twice as much cocaine as his rivals. That was most likely what made the drink so popular among consumers. When the truth came out, Koca-Nola became a “scapegoat” for the entire soft drink industry. A truly drug-free version of the product, with caffeine lamely subbing for cocaine, fizzled out, and Koca-Nola was gone by 1918. Austin may not have been able to go the distance, but he did succeed in giving Coca-Cola a run for its money, at least for a while.