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Quirk of history

The cocaine-laced wine loved by popes and presidents

An 1894 ad for the “Tonic of Kings”

As modern bartenders compete to put their own distinctive spin on obscure cocktail recipes, says Open Culture, many are turning to “anachronistic spirits” like mahia, the Moroccan Jewish brandy, and Chartreuse, the Carthusian monks’ secret elixir. One bygone booze they are unlikely to resurrect is Vin Mariani, a Belle Époque tonic wine loved by Queen Victoria, Ulysses S Grant and Emile Zola. The reason is that the restorative beverage, invented by Corsican chemist Angelo Mariani in 1863, was laced with cocaine. Impressed by the pep it produced in natives on a visit to South America, Mariani added ground coca leaves to a bottle of Bordeaux, et voilà.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting concoction caught on, not just to take the edge off, but as a medical cure-all. The recommended dose for adults was “two or three glasses a day”; and half that amount for children. Mariani was not just an expert chemist, but also a kind of “marketing genius”, sending complimentary cases of his gak-laced booze to dozens of celebrities. And it worked. The most famous actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, conferred “superstar status” on the drink, declaring it the “King of Tonics, Tonic of Kings”. Pope Leo XIII not only carried “a personal hip flask” of the stuff to “fortify himself in those moments when prayer was insufficient” – he invented and awarded a Vatican gold medal to Vin Mariani “in recognition of benefits received.”