Plenty Bottle of Kola Wine

Advertisement for kola wine in the Daily Gleaner in 1901

Advertisement for kola wine in the Daily Gleaner in 1901

The lyrics of the classic song “Sweet and Dandy,” written by Frederick Hibbert, known to us as Toots, tell of a young couple’s wedding day jitters and reassurances from their family, who have spent money on food and refreshments for the assembled guests. As I sing along, I belt out the words, “kola wine,” realizing that I, once again, have no idea what I’m warbling! So I decided to check it out, for those non-Jamaicans like me, so we can know the history of this beverage called kola wine with the hopes that I may someday try a glass and toast to Toots himself.

Advertisements for kola wine first appear in the Daily Gleaner in 1900. One ad describes this new drink:

It is a powerful Stimulant, A Pure Product, Palatable as well as Nourishing, An Agreeable Beverage that is also a Nutritive Tonic. It is tolerated by the weakest stomach and is a substitute for solid food in cases of acute disease and is valuable to digestion in all chronic conditions including mal-assimilation of food. In cases of acute disease in which other nourishment cannot be received, Club Brand Kola Wine is effective and easily bourne. But perhaps its widest usefulness is among chronic invalids, those convalescing from wasting illnesses, those who are constitutionally feeble and those who are temporarily or frequently require a tonic.

Advertisement for kola wine from the Daily Gleaner in 1900

Advertisement for kola wine from the Daily Gleaner in 1900

The advertisement goes on to state that it is good for “various ailments” including dyspepsia, asthma, sea sickness, diarrhea, heart weakness, following fevers, brain and nerve ailments, neuralgia and migraines, and as a general tonic to aid circulation. These advertisements are not unlike those of Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper in the same era in the United States and elsewhere. The “stimulant” found in kola wine is, like Coca-Cola and other popular soft drinks, caffeine, which is found in the cola nut used in production of both Coca-Cola and kola wine. The nuts have been used for centuries as a diuretic, stimulant, cardiac tonic, astringent, and anti-depressive.

Coca-Cola advertisement from 1886

Coca-Cola advertisement from 1886

These sorts of tonics were and are still popular in Jamaica and among Jamaican musicians. Pianist Herman Sang revealed to me that Don Drummond was known to drink a tonic in the studio, although it is unknown exactly what it was. Sang told me, “I noticed that he had this brown bag, a paper bag with something that looked like a one pint little bottle and he would bring it and put it beside the piano, like on the ground where the piano was. And whenever we had a break he would come over and open the bag and nobody really knew what it was. Maybe it was an energy drink! (laughs) But I always remember that.” Kola wine? Perhaps! Drummond’s favorite drink, however, was limeade or a concoction of Ovaltine and clay.

A Jamaica Observer article on September 1, 2003 revealed more information about what is called “root tonics.” Author Gwyneth Harold writes, “There is a variety of roots wines in the supermarkets and on bar shelves. They have names like Zion, Baba, Allman Strength Roots Drink, Lion Brand, Kola Wine, Magnum, Ginger Joy, Ginger Wine with Ginseng, and Pump It Up. They have stiff competition from the ‘small man’ who mixes a batch in his kitchen and sells it unlabelled out of a knapsack under names like Front End Lifter. Some of the roots drinks claim to be specially recommended for those ‘suffering from a run down constitution’ or ‘fatigue.’ Some say that they are number one in their class for enhancing one’s energy level ú taking it to a whole new plateau. The makers of Magnum proudly declare their drink to be with ‘Vigorton 2’ – a popular drink of an earlier time that was immortalised in ska by Lee Scratch Perry and King Stitt. There are also virility claims because some of the natural ingredients contain aphrodisiacs such as peanut root, sarsaparilla and medina. . . . Pump It Up, itself used to be known as Samsons Wine, The modern blend has 27 roots. It is recommended for adults only. A serving size of roots drinks ranges from one to two wine glasses. But while they are a popular part of Jamaican culture, we wondered if there were any standards in place to regulate these beverages. Diane Robertson, registered pharmacist, herbal consultant and author of ‘Live Longer, Look Younger With Herbs’, explained that one of the first distinctions to be made was the difference between roots tonic wine and a roots drink or roots juice. Tonics are for perking up the system, she said, but once the word tonic was on a bottle, it had to be registered by the Ministry of Health (MOH).” The article goes on to advocate regulation and proper labeling.

Below are the lyrics to “Sweet and Dandy” as well as a link to the song. Please post below if you have tried kola wine and share your experiences—for those who are unfamiliar with the beverage, like I am, we’d love to know your thoughts!

Listen to the song here and see Toots & the Maytals perform this classic in the film The Harder They Come: Sweet and Dandy

Sweet and Dandy
By Toots & the Maytals

Etty in the room a cry
Mama say she must wipe her eye
Papa say she no fi foolish
Like she never been to school at all

It is no wonder
It’s a perfect pander
While they were dancing
In that bar room last night

Johnson in the room afret
Uncle say he must hold up him head
Aunty say he no fi foolish
Like a no time fi his wedding day

It is no wonder
It’s a perfect pander
While they were dancing
In that bar room last night

One pound ten for the wedding cake
Plenty bottle of kola wine
All the people them dress up in a white
Fi go eat out Johnson wedding cake

It is no wonder
It’s a perfect pander
While they were dancing
In that bar room last night

Etty in the room a cry
Mama say she must wipe her eye
Papa say she no fi foolish
Like she never been to school at all

It is no wonder
It’s a perfect pander
While they were dancing
In that bar room last night

Johnson in the room afret
Uncle say he must hold up him head
Aunty say he no fi foolish
Like a no time fi his wedding day

It is no wonder
It’s a perfect pander
While they were dancing
In that bar room last night

One pound ten for the wedding cake
Plenty bottle of kola wine
All the people them dress up in a white
Fi go eat out Johnson wedding cake

It is no wonder
It’s a perfect pander
While they were dancing
In that bar room last night

But they were sweet and dandy
Sweet and dandy
Sweet and dandy
Sweet and dandy

Sweet and dandy
Sweet and dandy
Sweet and dandy
Sweet and dandy

They were sweet and dandy
They were sweet and dandy
They were sweet and dandy
They were sweet and dandy
They were sweet and dandy

One comment

  1. The Jamaican Kola wine is a pretty horrible commercial product. Think of cheap cola soft drink, gone flat, and fortified to a raw-tasting 20% alcohol. Stick to red stripe or Appleton Estate. If you wanted to try it, it might be available in a well-stocked West Indian market, but you’d probably have to be in Miami, NYC, London, or Toronto to find it.

    There are all kinds of tonics in Jamaica, many homemade, that are much better, like Irish Moss, Ginger Beer, etc etc.

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