This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
When I heard that someone in Italy was making a liqueur infused with coca leaves, I pictured a clandestine distillery in the basement of a 70s-style coke den. But the makers of Coca Buton – this unusual alcoholic beverage – are legit, and operate a small company in San Lazzaro di Savena, a town on the outskirts of Bologna.
The firm was recently bought by Amaro Montenegro, a famous Italian spirits brand based in the area. But the drink’s story goes back centuries, to the end of the 1800s, when coca leaves were used in culinary experimentation across Europe and the United States; inspired by how indigenous peoples in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia used the plant to combat fatigue, a few entrepreneurial travellers started to work with coca and its energy-giving properties.
In the 1850s, chemists extracted the active ingredient from coca leaves, which was later named cocaine by German chemist Albert Niemann in 1860. Around the same time, French chemist Angelo Mariani began brewing a wine infused with coca leaves, which he later sold under the brand name Vin Mariani. The drink was one of many coca wines at the time, but it became a favourite of royalty, literary and artistic figures, and even Pope Leo XIII.
Inspired by Vin Mariani’s massive success, American pharmacist John Pemberton, based in Georgia, used coca leaves to develop a similar drink, calling it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. But soon after he’d launched his new product, the county where he was operating passed prohibition laws that made his alcoholic beverage illegal (the cocaine in it was fine, though). That’s why Pemberton came up with a different recipe in 1885, a sweet non-alcoholic syrup that became the base of Coca-Cola.
“Coca leaves were a bit like the Red Bull of the 19th century,” said Fulvio Piccinino, a former bartender and founder of Sapere Bere, an Italian website dedicated to spirits. In other words, if you wanted to create a beverage with energising properties in the late 1800s, it was only natural that you’d include coca as an ingredient.
It was amid this climate of experimentation that French-born Jean Bouton – a descendant of a family of French distillers, who was living near Bologna – invented the Coca Buton liqueur. The exact date of its creation is not known, although we know it’s been in circulation since at least as early as 1876, thanks to a surviving promotional poster.
Within a few decades, our understanding of how the active ingredient of coca leaves impacts the human brain drastically changed. We now know coca leaves are not addictive when chewed in their natural state, while cocaine is. But in the 19th century, these distinctions weren’t so clear. For instance, Vin Mariani is thought to have utilised a combination of coca leaves and actual cocaine – but this was discontinued in the early 1900s because it led to addiction and abuse.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Coca-Cola (by this time owned by Asa G. Candler, who had bought the drink’s recipe from Pemberton) was made available in bottled form, making it accessible to Black communities who were at the time forbidden from drinking from the soda fountains where the drink had become popular with the white middle class. According to a 2013 New York Times piece by historian Grace Elizabeth Hale, this change in distribution saw the public and the press in the South adding concerns over the drink’s consumption to racist hysteria about African American drug use.
In response to this – as well as changing legislation – Candler and his employees started to revise the drink’s recipe in 1903, 11 years before cocaine was officially banned in the US. Over time, the company worked to decrease and ultimately eliminate any traces of the plant’s psychotropic effects in its product, though it’s thought that cocaine wasn’t totally eliminated from Coca-Cola until 1929. The new and improved recipe still made use of essences extracted from coca leaves, plus the highly coveted 7X aroma.
Even once cocaine was deemed dangerous, it was only banned internationally in 1961. But in Coca Buton’s case, no significant changes had to be made in its recipe, since the distillation process naturally eliminates the plant’s psychotropic effects.
A former employee of Amaro Montenegro, who didn’t want to disclose her name for privacy reasons, said the liqueur’s production process happens under strict supervision. “The coca leaves are imported from Bolivia and Peru and kept in a safe,” she said. “Once we have extracted the aroma, they are returned to the Guardia di Finanza [a special Italian police force]. They are counted one by one.”
Coca Buton is not the only spirit subject to strict regulation – absinthe also falls into this category. One of the latter’s main ingredients, the essential oil artemisia absinthium, contains a substance called thujone, which is toxic in large quantities. That’s why the drink got a bad reputation in the early 20th century, but its famed hallucinatory properties are actually more likely due to its high alcohol content, usually around 70 percent.
In Europe, spirits containing artemisia absinthium cannot contain more than 35 mg of thujone per litre. In the United States, that quantity drops to 10 mg. That’s why some European drinks cannot be exported to the US, including traditional Alpine liqueurs like Genepy, which also contains extracts of plants in the Artemisia genus.
Today, Coca Buton is not particularly popular, perhaps because it tastes a bit old fashioned. The spirit is bright green, thick, very aromatic and sweet. "It’s like absinthe. People expect a lot from it because of its origin story, but it’s just a digestif,” Piccinino explained. “Marketing your booze solely based on its forbidden allure is not a long-term strategy.”
In short, Coca Buton is not as risqué as it sounds. The liqueur has a few international cousins, though, including Agwa de Bolivia, a spirit made in Amsterdam with Bolivian coca leaves, and Amuerte, a coca leaf gin made in Belgium. In 2017, even Vin Mariani made a comeback – minus the cocaine – a full 102 years after it was banned.
Still, Coca Button represents a piece of history, a time when the properties and products of coca plants were explored and experimented with, not criminalised. In 2009, Bolivia – where the coca plant is legally grown and traditionally consumed by indigenous people – petitioned the UN to amend its 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to ban cocaine but not coca. Advocacy groups have also argued that the ban on coca is based on outdated scientific evidence and on a racist perception of indigenous cultural practices.
Who knows, maybe one day coca-infused drinks will once again not be a big deal. In the meantime, you can sip Coca Button neat or with ice, before or after dinner, hot or cold. You can also try the Saigon cocktail, which is actually a Sicilian recipe where the liqueur is mixed with vodka, vermouth and lemon granita. It sounds pretty awful, but to each his own.