The Big Drink - Book Review

Ely Jacques Kahn Jr. wrote his first article for The New Yorker in 1937 during his senior year at Harvard.  He served as a field correspondent for the magazine during World War II from the Southwest Pacific while serving in the U.S. Army from 1941-1945 and from Korea during the Korean Conflict. A prolific free-lance journalist, E.J. Kahn, Jr. authored 27 non-fiction books before his death in 1994 at age 77.

In the preface of his seventh book, The Big Drink, Kahn wrote:
"This book is neither a definitive nor an authorized history of the Coca-Cola Company and its monumental works.  The book evolved from a series of articles written for The New Yorker, and the idea of doing them originated with that magazine's editor, William Shawn."
The Universal Drink articles were published in 1959; however, Kahn's first article that mentioned The Coca-Cola Company appeared nine years earlier on July 1, 1950 in the article More Bounce to the Ounce which incidentally profiled the head of Coca-Cola's rival company, Walter S. Mack, Jr., who was appointed Chairman of the Board at PepsiCo that year.

Kahn also disclosed in the preface that he paid $99.50 to purchase one share of The Coca-Cola Company stock so he could receive annual reports and proxy statements from the company in writing the book.  He happily reported that by the time he wrote the preface, his share was worth $149.50.

His one share would have turned into 288 shares in 1994 after seven splits.  His original share purchased for $99.50 would have been worth $11,701.44 based on the closing price of the stock on May 27, the previous trading day before his death.  This does not include the quarterly cash dividends that he had earned during the lifetime of his shares.

Kahn joked about the price of a bottle of Coke going up from a nickel to a dime at The New Yorker office three months after the magazine ran his four-part The Universal Drink series from February - March 1959.

Due to the ever increasing production costs after World War II, many of the Coca-Cola bottlers were unable to maintain the wholesale prices for Coke such that the retailers could sell the 6 1/2 ounce bottles for 5 cents.  The price increase happened as early as 1946 in Los Angeles.  By 1950, retail prices went from 5 cents a bottle to anywhere from 6 cents to 10 cents in some locations.  In March 1959, Atlanta was the last market to increase its wholesale price of a case of Coke from 80 cents to one dollar.  Retail prices for a bottle of Coke also went from a nickel to a dime before the year ended.

Fast forward to December 2009, at Wal-Mart (which began as Sam Walton's five and dime store) you could buy a 2-liter PET bottle of Coke Classic on sale for $1.

2 liters = approx. 67.63 ounces = approx 10 (6 1/2 ounce) bottles

In other words, you could still buy the equivalent of 10 (6 1/2 ounce) bottles of Coke for about a dollar in 2009.

Wow, 50 years after Kahn's The Universal Drink, we could still enjoy The Big Drink for the same price of 10 cents per serving!

Kahn began The Big Drink with Forty Thousand Times Each Minute to establish how big the ocean of Coke was in the 1950s.  The Coca-Cola Company reminded consumers that the big drink was enjoyed 60 million times a day around the globe.

In 2009, the company that gives us the one big drink is now serving nearly 500 brands of drinks at the rate of 1,600 million times a day around the globe.  That's roughly 2,667% increase over the daily consumption rate reported 50 years ago.  This produces a compounded annual growth rate of 6.79% over the past half a century.

Kahn explained how the big drink became more than just Something for the Boys during World War II.  Coca-Cola tactically advanced around the globe with the Allied forces however the drink was met with varying resistance during the post-war era in It Takes a Lot of Patience.  Globalization of the drink driven by profit and its universal appeal continued in You Got to Get It Out to the Jungles.  But more importantly, the people who work for The Coca-Cola Company, also known as Coca-Cola Men, carried the Big Drink to new markets Marching with a Song in Their Hearts.

In Feet and Wings, Kahn chronicled the birth of Coca-Cola in 1886 and the three wise men: John Pemberton, Asa Candler and Robert Woodruff who made Coca-Cola the Big Drink through the end of the 1950s.  Kahn explained how the big drink became big business as Candler agreed in 1899 to allow Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead to bottle the drink in The Most Important Businessman in TownThe End Result was of course big money for most of those who became part of the big drink franchise.  Big money unfortunately also brought Bugs, Butts and Buncombe and the bottlers to court.  Even Uncle Sam went after the Big Drink in the 1909 case known as the United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola as told in The Bane of Chromatography: 7X.

The Coca-Cola Company also had to fight off thousands of imitators in Magic Syllables.  Even overseas there were Copa-Kola (Brazil), Coca-Kola (Bolivia), Coco-Kola (Paraguay), Cofa-Cola (Germany), Ola-Cola (Cuba), Loka-Koka (Spain), just to name a few.  One may even argue the value of Coca-Cola's trademark had surpassed the value of its secret formula during the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, the struggle between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola continued in and out of the courts in The Enemy.

In its Relentless Pursuit and Preventive Maintenance, The Coca-Cola Company recognized the importance of strategic management for an ever growing corporation and bottler network around the globe with the recruitment of key individuals.  Equally important was the political liaison of securing near-term relationships in the highest places while taking a longer term perspective in the different political systems.

Kahn went on to explain that advertising played a big role in the success of the Big Drink in Practicing What Archie Preached. Archie Lee of the D'Arcy Advertising Company had "nurtured the subtle, intangible, imponderable image of Coca-Cola" over the growth years.  Coca-Cola's annual advertising budget rose from forty-six dollars in its first year to nearly twenty million in 1959.  The Big Drink's global annual advertising exceeded three billion dollars in 2009.

As recognizable as the Spencerian logo, the patented Coca-Cola bottle has been instrumental in the Big Drink's spectacular growth as Kahn explained in Getting the Drink Drunk.  In 1959, there were 1.5 billion 6.5 ounce returnable glass bottles in circulation with 500 million new bottles being produced per year by independent glass manufacturers.  Each bottle was refilled an average of 35 times over its lifetime and over 6 billion contour-shaped bottles were produced in its first 40 years.

Coca-Cola Men also recognized the important association of youth and sports and the Big Drink in An Innocent Friendship.  In this final chapter, Kahn discussed Coca-Cola's ties to America's favorite pastime. Ty Cobb, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who also shared the same birth year as the Big Drink, was "a Coca-Cola booster before he was a Coca-Cola bottler."  Through its sponsorship of the Olympic Games, Coca-Cola was able to quench the thirst and capture the heart of the young generation of athletes and spectators overseas where local bottlers did not exist.

The 174 pages of The Big Drink is teeming with funny tales of Coca-Cola, the development of the drink, the cokestory and planetary expansion of the company, from its inception to the year 1959.  Kahn's memorable and sometimes romantic accounts of ordinary people and Coca-Cola have perhaps inspired some of the later Coca-Cola advertising.
"A waitress in Tokyo ... once said that Coca-Cola has the sweet-and-bitter flavor of first love" (p.22)
In 1999, Leo Burnett USA produced "First Experience" a 30-second television commercial for The Coca-Cola Company.  Directed by John Madden who also directed the film Shakespeare in Love, the commercial was filmed in a small village outside Ouarzazat in Morocco.

The spot shows three young boys in a desert village wondering what Coca-Cola tastes like.

"I wonder what it tastes like?" asked one boy.

"My Dad says it's like kissing a girl," answered another boy.

The boys laughed.

"They're here," the boys exclaimed and ran towards the village store where a shiny red cooler full of ice-chilled and bottled Coke was unloaded from a beat-up delivery truck.  One of the boys took out a bottle from the cooler to try.

"Is it like kissing a girl?" asked the boy curiously while two young girls giggled nearby.

"I hope so," replied the boy with a big smile after his first gulp and a brief pause.  He then took another gulp of Coca-Cola from the contour-shaped glass bottle.

While the book is a great read on the story of Coca-Cola, The Big Drink does not provide any notes or references for those who are interested in doing further reading or research.  This is not to say Kahn's history of The Coca-Cola Company published by Random House is any less relevant.  In fact, it has provided the foundation for generations of books, articles and reports on the beverage company and industry for the next half a century.  In particular, a fellow Harvard graduate and author, Mark Pendergrast, acknowledged in his first edition of For God, Country and Coca-Cola:
"My work builds on previous books on Coca-Cola by E.J. Kahn, Jr. ... I am personally indebted to E.J. Kahn, Jr., for his humanity and encouragement.  At the outset, he allowed me to forage through his files at The New Yorker and copy over four hundred pages of meticulously indexed notes, which not only gave me concrete information, but served as an exemplary role model."
Interestingly, Pendergrast's first account of The Coca-Cola Company published in 1993 was titled For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It.  In 1999, his revised edition was re-titled For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. Pendergrast has cleverly referenced Kahn's introduction that The Big Drink is neither a definitive nor an authorized history of the Coca-Cola Company.

Kahn saw first hand how Coca-Cola expanded its footprint around the globe for over two decades during his travels.  He himself grew up fluent in French, German and English.  His paternal grandfather was from Austria and his mother's family was French.  Kahn noted how "Drink Coca-Cola" is translated into different languages:
"Spaniards are accustomed to "Beba Coca-Cola," Frenchman to "Buvez Coca-Cola," Italians to "Bevete Coca-Cola," Germans and Swiss to "Trink Coca-Cola," Finns to "Juo Coca-Cola," Swedes to "Drick Coca-Cola," Norwegians to "Drikk Coca-Cola.  It is "Bebam Coca-Cola" in Macao, "Tome Coca-Cola" in much of South America, and "Duem Coca-Cola" in Thailand, as well as ดื่ม โคคา-โคล่า.  In Greece, it is πίνετε Κόκα-Κόλα, in Japan, 飲みましょう コカコーラ, ... "(p.44)
The slogan "Drink Coca-Cola" appears in 18 different languages inside both the front and back covers of The Big Drink as they were used in the 1950s.  The red cover has the iconic hobbleskirt bottle with the crown cap. The dust jacket designed by Paul Bacon has the title and the author's name arranged in the shape of a hobbleskirt bottle.  Even from a distance anyone who sees the cover would recognize that it is a book about Coca-Cola. A photo of the author appears on the back of the dust jacket.

It has been fifty years since The Big Drink was first published and it is as classic and refreshing as the drink itself.  Just as Mark Pendergrast has dedicated his revised book to E.J. Kahn, Jr., I'd like to dedicate this article to the memory of the Coca-Cola chronicler.

The Big Drink book review also appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Coca-Cola Collectors News.  Website links in the article were updated in January 2019.