If we put Pope Leo XIII, the writer Émile Zola, Ulysses S. Grant, president of the United States, and a Peruvian farmer from the Andean Altiplano on a table, we could say that the equation is, to say the least, confusing. If to this nineteenth-century algebra exercise we add the figure of the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke, the accounts may still not come out. We will only tell you the common denominator: Mariani wine, made with coca leaves.
Known for centuries by Native Americans, who chewed -and chewed- the leaves of this Andean shrub to mitigate fatigue on your mountain journeys. Through each bite, cocaine, a powerful alkaloid present in the leaves of some species of the genus Erythroxylum, is released, producing anesthetic and analgesic reactions, in addition to possessing certain stimulating properties that allowed Andean peasants to carry out long marches with little fatigue.
An Italian doctor who brings the Vatican in check, Sigmund Freud and an invigorating tonic
There is still a certain irony when one thinks how this restorative praised by Leo XIII owes much to an Italian physiologist and chemist, Giussepe Mantegazza, with whom the Holy See maintained a close relationship after being this defender of, among other causes, Darwinism or vivisection.
The reality is that Mantegazza, who in addition to being a physiologist was a writer, anthropologist and neurologist, one of the most dominant and successful voices in Italian science in the mid-nineteenth century, set out for Argentina around the fifties of that century. There, during his travels, he discovered that peasants performed arduous tasks with little effort while his jaws would not stop beating a slightly rough, bitter leaf.
With the attention focused on the product and already on his return, after several years of study, he published Sulle virtù igieniche e medicinali della coca e sugli alimenti nervosi in generale, an extensive treatise in Italian that you can find here in Italian, in which talks about the virtues of coca after consuming it personally.
And this is exactly where the great protagonist of our transatlantic trip comes in: Angelo Mariani, a Corsican chemist accustomed to making tonics and who, surely surprised by Mantegazza’s work, got down to work to make the ultimate toner. After mixing Bordeaux wine with coca leaves in 1863, Mariani thus created the wine that would bear her name and that would make her famous worldwide.
The success of the mix was not only in the mere hodgepodge, but in the chemical reaction that was produced by the interaction of alcohol with a metabolite of cocaine, generating ethylene oxide, an even more powerful compound that made a glass of Vin Mariani have an effect similar to about 50mg of current cocaine.
Mariani Wine was said to be an excellent medicine for the stomach and respiratory system, as well as being good for combat fatigue, melancholy, weakness and nervousness, in addition to enhancing the delayed functions of any organ. A true panacea that made Mariani rich, enabling the creation of new and successful products such as a coca tincture, a coca tea and even a toothpaste.
A best seller that also embraced writers, actors, artists, painters, leaders, kings, popes … even the prime minister drank Vin Mariani. In the list of clients we find names such as Thomas Alva Edison, Émile Zola, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Queen Victoria of England, William McKinley, Sigmund Freud, José Martí, Paul Verlaine and of course, his Holiness Pius IX, Leo XIII and Benedict XV.
The papal blessing
Such a stellar team spoke clearly of the success of Vin Mariani, a sales success from its creation in the 1960s until its ban in 1914, in the preludes of the First World War, a period in which the shadows of cocaine also began to appear, showing the damage that cocaine hydrochloride produced.
Almost fifty years of sales that allowed Mariani to lead a comfortable life, moving to the outskirts of Paris, where she bought an imposing estate where, in addition to being her laboratories, she also set up a greenhouse to continue experimenting with her shrubs. A successful businessman, Mariani’s final fireworks came with a message from the Holy See and a gold medal awarded by Leo XIII: “support His Holiness’s ascetic retreat.”
Be that as it may, the reality is that, although potatoes are usually long-lived people, Leo XIII lived to be 93 years old, being at his death the third longest pontificate in history. A more than curious fact with which to close this story about wine, cocaine and cassocks.
Not without first commenting that, for the most curious, there is an heir Mariani (Christophe, below these lines) who relaunched the brand in 2017, emulating – not totally – what his great-grandfather did. In this case we are talking about an aperitif that is made with Corsican vermouth infused with a distillate of coca leaves and cola nut extract. Afterwards, it is slightly fortified. The recipe, which has little to do with the original, is completely legal, since during the distillation of the leaves any psychotropic property of the coca is lost, leaving only its aroma.
If you are interested in the new adventure from Vin Mariani, you can buy this aperitif (similar to a vermouth or a pastis) here.
Image | Wikimedia Commons
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