Chances are, you’ve never thought about what cola ― the beloved drink that Coke made famous ― is actually made of, or how it got its name.
In its original form (and some modern recipes), cola was made from a specific ingredient that has roots in the natural world. We’re not talk about cinnamon or nutmeg or any of those other spices, but the kola nut.
At first taste, the kola nut is quite bitter, but it does contain a natural sweetness as well as caffeine. It comes from the kola tree, which grows predominately in West Africa and areas of Latin America. The tree grows in tropical areas and produces large pods, similar to the cocoa pods that house the cocoa bean.
In Nigeria, the kola nut is a revered part of culture. According to Words are Sweet: Igbo Stories and Storytelling, it is the highest form of hospitality. It is often offered to house guests as a way to let them know they are welcomed. The nuts are cracked in front of guests and handed out to be chewed on.
This video shows how kola nuts are peeled from the pod and then eaten.
Common beverage lore, as Buzzfeed reports, says that the original recipe for Coke included both coca leaves and kola nut, and that’s how Coca-Cola got its name.
These days we know that kola nuts are not used to make Coke or other major cola brands ― that’s why it’s no longer listed on the ingredients label ― but there are still some people making cola out of it.
The general manager at Betony’s in New York City used the kola nut to make a reinvented version of the classic rum and coke. And smaller beverage companies, such as Q Drinks, are still using it to make their cola drinks.
We talked to Jordan Silbert, the CEO of Q Drinks, for information on the kola nut’s role in cola. He told us that the main reason people used kola nut to make cola was really for its caffeine.
“What really makes cola special is the other ingredients that are in it,” Silbert explained. Q Kola adds lemons, oranges, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and agave for additional sweetness to their kola nut beverage to give it that distinctive cola flavor.
Silbert also told us that you can find kola nuts at some African markets. So if you want a taste of the real thing (and caffeine that you can chew on), be on the lookout.