Inca Kola is a hugely popular and altogether iconic beverage in Peru. The yellowy, sweet, carbonated soft drink—often described as bubblegum in a bottle—doesn’t have the sophistication of other national treasures such as pisco and ceviche, but it’s just as much a part of the national identity.
In 1910, José Robinson Lindley and his family emigrated from England to Peru. The Lindleys founded a bottling company in Lima, producing and marketing carbonated and non-carbonated beverages. In 1928, the slowly expanding family business was officially registered as the Corporación José R. Lindley S.A.
In 1935, and with a line of sodas already in production, José Lindley introduced a new carbonated concoction called Inca Kola. It was an almost immediate hit, first gaining popularity in Lima’s working-class districts. Ten years after its creation, Inca Kola had become the market leader in Lima.
Peruvians had connected with the drink, thanks in no small part to the beverage’s patriotic iconography and shrewd marketing campaigns emphasizing Inca Kola’s position as the soft drink of Peru. Patriotic sloganeering has been used to promote Inca Kola since the 1960s, first with La bebida del sabor nacional (“The drink of national flavor”) and later with similarly themed slogans such as Es nuestra, La bebida del Perú (“It’s ours, the drink of Peru”) and El sabor del Perú (“The taste of Peru”).
By 1972, Inca Kola had gained a strong foothold nationwide—strong enough to give Coca-Cola a run for its money.
Inca Kola vs. Coca-Cola
It’s never easy to take on the world’s most valuable brand, let alone outsell it, but Inca Kola has always been a tenacious competitor. In 1995, Coca-Cola had a 32 percent market share of soda sales in Peru, compared with Inca Kola’s slightly higher 32.9 percent. This was a rare situation for Coca-Cola and one that needed a remedy.
Despite the success of Inca Kola, Corporación José R. Lindley S.A. had been suffering during the 1980s due to the turmoil caused by Shining Path rebels. Then came the hyperinflation of the early 1990s, further damaging the company’s profits.
Following a period of restructuring, the company found itself in debt and in need of assistance. In 1999, Corporación José R. Lindley S.A. struck a deal with the Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola purchased half of Inca Kola—a rival it had never managed to beat—and a 20 percent stake in the Lindley Corporation.
So what goes into this slightly fruity, strangely yellow beverage? Well, like Coca-Cola, there is a level of mystery surrounding the exact Inca Kola formula. On the side of every bottle (at least those produced in Peru), you’ll see the following ingredients:
- Carbonated water
- Citric acid
- Sodium benzoate
- Tartrazine coloring
A not-so-secret ingredient not listed on the bottle is lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora or Aloysia triphylla), known in Peru (and throughout the Andes) as Hierba Luisa. This plant is quite common in family gardens in certain parts of Peru, where it is used as an infusión (herbal tea) and to add flavor to cold drinks, sorbets, and some savory dishes.
There are no dos or don’ts with Inca Kola—it’s very much an anytime and anywhere kind of drink. You’ll find it served in many different establishments in Peru, from fast food restaurants (including McDonald’s) to upscale cevicherias (ceviche restaurants). Inca Kola is also a standard accompaniment to Peruvian Chinese food as served in the country’s many chifa restaurants.
Served cold, Inca Kola is a surprisingly refreshing drink. Many Peruvians, however, possess strange phobias regarding the consumption of icy-cold drinks. As a result, they tend to drink it at room temperature.
Unlike Coca-Cola, Inca Kola is rarely—if ever—served with ice, nor is it used as a mixer for alcoholic drinks such as rum or vodka.
Where to Buy It
Inca Kola is available throughout Peru; even the smallest store in the smallest village will probably have a bottle or two somewhere on the shelf.
If you want to buy Inca Kola outside Peru, look for a Latin American specialty shop. You might also find it in supermarkets located in areas with large South American communities. If that’s not an option, you can try buying it online.
The Coca-Cola Company manufactures Inca Kola in the United States. If you fell in love with Inca Kola in Peru, be prepared for subtle—or perhaps not so subtle—differences in taste between the Peruvian and U.S.-produced versions.