Vin Mariani: The Cocaine-Infused Wine Beloved by Popes and Presidents

Cocaine wine enthusiast Pope Leo XIII waves to the camera.
Cocaine wine enthusiast Pope Leo XIII waves to the camera. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Before cocaine became a scourge of Afterschool Specials and ‘80s Wall Street brokers, it was a socially acceptable way to add a little extra jet fuel to your daily activities. Products containing the stimulant made from coca leaves were found in tonics, sodas, and even baby formulas.

It was also in a wine endorsed by a pope. Two popes, actually.

The brand was Vin Mariani, the brainchild of French chemist and winemaker Angelo Mariani. In the mid- to late 1800s, the beverage was widely circulated in France, the United States, and Italy, where both Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X were said to be enthusiastic imbibers.

Pope Leo was so enthusiastic that he took his devotion one step further and made a very public endorsement of the drink by seemingly inventing a “gold medal” award “in recognition of benefits received” from Vin Mariani, which may have included getting so hopped up on the stuff that he began handing out nonexistent honors.

Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The drink was introduced in 1863 and was Mariani’s solution for extracting the benefits of the coca leaves without the need to chew them with lime, which was needed to draw out the drug. While the alcohol in the Bordeaux wine provided the extraction needed, Mariani was not content with this simple concoction. So he added brandy and some sweetener, because what a cocaine drink really needs is sugar.

Vin tonique Mariani à la Coca de Pérou had 6 milligrams of cocaine per ounce, which presented a problem when Angelo Mariani wanted to bring it to America. The country was used to coca drinks packing even more of a punch at 10 milligrams an ounce, so Mariani upped his potency to remain competitive. In addition to the pair of popes, Mariani's cocaine cocktail won over Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, and Jules Verne, among others.

Angelo Mariani's Vin tonique Mariani à la Coca de Pérou wine.
Angelo Mariani's Vin tonique Mariani à la Coca de Pérou wine. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The wine was part of the cocaine craze that began in the 1860s, when the drug was touted as a medical cure-all. A variety of products containing coca leaves of varying strength were made available and cocaine was used as both a topical anesthetic and a stimulant. Mariani himself made a product known as Mariani’s Elixir, which contained three times the concentration of the wine, while his coca tea had eight times the concentration. If someone adhered to the recommended 2 ounce serving of the wine, it would be about 20 milligrams of cocaine.

Increased drug legislation in the early 20th century largely put a halt to the use of coca leaves in over-the-counter products, and cocaine didn’t see a resurgence until the 1970s. Even then, it would have been unusual for a user to try and unwind with a glass of cocaine-infused wine at the end of a long day. Especially one endorsed by the Pope.

[h/t The A.V. Club]