Soda: Inca Kola, Peru's National Soda

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[Photograph: Jed Portman]

The Incas, of course, were the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Peru. A cola is, according to Merriam-Webster, "a carbonated soft drink colored usually with caramel and flavored usually with extracts from kola nuts" (the plural of colon too, apparently, but that's neither here nor there). The definition post-dates the Inca Empire by a couple of centuries. So what's Inca Kola?

Well, it's a bright yellow soda that is, like the Incas, from Peru. That's the hook, obviously: the logo and label are decorated with Inca iconography intended to enforce the idea that this soda is South American. Which is ironic, on one hand, because it was created less than one hundred years ago by an immigrant from England.

But the soda is flavored in part with lemon verbena, native to South America. And whether or not it should be Peru's national soda, it most certainly is. Inca Kola enjoys about as large a share of the soft-drink market in its home country as Coca-Cola, maybe more, and is as powerful a symbol of Peruvian identity in and outside the country—check the shelves in any South American grocery, you'll find it—as is Cheerwine in the Carolinas, or Moxie in Maine.

Inca Kola is as light and colorful as a kid's birthday party, and its flavor follows suit. It tastes like bubble gum steeped in cream soda. Modern all the way, not something that brings to mind the old foundations of Machu Picchu or the timeless ceremonies of the Inti Raymi in Cusco.

But hey, even those things must have seemed gaudy and newfangled at one point. And though economic necessity forced Inca Kola to partner with Coca-Cola on the corporate level back in 1997, costing it some credibility at home, you've still got to hand it to any soda that outsells—or even sells on a level with—the multinational behemoths, as Inca Kola has in Peru for decades.

About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.

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