What is that strange yellow beverage everyone is drinking?

It’s the first question a Peruvian food newbie asks when confronted with Peru’s ubiquitous soda: Inca Kola.

It’s a drink people either love or hate, but personal preferences aside, it has an interesting history in the global carbonated beverage world’s annals. It is the tale of the little cola that could.

What many may not know is that the extremely sweet (some say the taste is similar to bubble gum or pineapple) and brightly yellow soda (some say it looks like, well, I’ll let you figure that one out) is one of just a handful of locally produced colas in the world that was never able to be beaten by the world’s number one soft drink: Coca-Cola.

Despite years of trying to dominate the Peruvian market, Coca-Cola finally gave up and decided it had to buy a share of Inca Kola because it simply couldn’t outsell it.

In 1935, Lima was celebrating 400 years since its founding, and the Lindleys decided to produce a unique drink to commemorate the event and their new homeland.

José Lindley had learned of a concoction based on hierba Luísa, lemon verbena, and began experimenting with different mixtures, fussing with the ingredients and carbonation levels until finding just the right formula. Thus was born Inca Kola, a fruity soda that was launched with this catchy slogan:

Inca Kola, sólo hay una y no se parece a ninguna.

Inca Kola, there is only one, unlike any other.

For years, Coca-Cola and its arch-rival Pepsi tried to dominate the Peruvian market. Still, despite their vast resources, they were never able to overtake Inca Kola as the Peruvian public’s preferred soft drink.

Inca Kola cleverly marketed itself as the nationalistic soft drink option, and Peruvians drank it by the gallons. Knowing the Peruvian market, Inca Kola targeted small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, offering incentives and marketing assistance.

Partly due to national pride, partly due to its sweet flavour, and partly due to its cost (less than its rivals), Inca Kola became the Peruvian soft drink industry leader. One of its key marketing strategies was to convince Peruvians that Inca Kola was a much better complement to Peruvian food than either Coke or Pepsi.

Finally, in 1999, Coca-Cola and the Corporación José R. Lindley entered a strategic alliance whereby the multinational purchased 50% of the company for a rumoured $300 million.

Peruvians love their Inca Kola. There is a sense of pride that soda in a small, developing country could not be overtaken by the most important beverage company in the world. Fast-food restaurants like the Peruvian company Bembo’s switched from Coke to Inca Kola. Even McDonald’s had to come to a unique agreement with Coca-Cola to allow both beverages to be sold in its restaurants, something unheard of in the fast-food restaurant industry. Inca Kola was like the persistent lover that had come into the marriage between McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. In Peru, Big Macs are eaten with Inca Kola, not Coke.