Dr. Pepper has a vaguely spicy, distinctive taste that is hard to describe, simply because there’s nothing quite like it. Some people say it has a hint of cherry or a trace of licorice, but it’s hard to describe because it’s a combination of 23 different flavors.
This popular soda is the oldest major soft drink brand in the United States and remains one of the top-selling sodas worldwide. If you want to learn about its history, here’s how it came to be.
History of Dr. Pepper
In Waco, Texas, a Brooklyn-born pharmacist named Charles Alderton invented a soft drink that soon became known as “Dr. Pepper.” It was 1885 – a time when pharmacies often doubled as soda fountains. Alderton was working at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store, where carbonated drinks were served at a soda fountain. He was known for trying different flavor combinations rather than simply pouring the usual fruit options. Eventually, he settled on not one nor two but 23 flavors plus phosphoric acid. Up to this day, the company holds on to the line that Dr. Pepper is a unique blend of 23 different flavors.
When Alderton was testing his new drink, he first offered it to the store owner named Wade Morrison, who found it to his liking. Patrons at Morrison’s soda fountain learned about Alderton’s new drink and liked it as well. It was fast becoming a big hit with customers, who ordered the concoction by asking Alderton to “shoot them a Waco.”
The drink’s popularity grew, giving Alderton and Morrison trouble manufacturing enough of the soft drink to keep up with the product’s demand. Every establishment that had soda fountain drinks wanted his Dr. Pepper Syrup. Robert S. Lazenby, the owner of the Circle “A” Ginger Ale Company in Waco, was impressed with the drink and was interested in manufacturing, bottling, and distributing the soft drink. While Alderton was a bright pharmacist, he had no desire to pursue the business and manufacturing end, so he gave the formula to Morrison and let him and Lazenby take over. Lazenby was a professional beverage chemist, and he and Morrison worked subsequently to improve the soft drink and take it further in the market. It was Morrison who named it Dr. Pepper and later stylized it to Dr Pepper. Due to the drink’s success, the two started the Dr Pepper Company.
The name “Dr. Pepper” was first used commercially in 1885. The drink was introduced nationally in the United States at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition as a new kind of soda pop made with 23 different flavors. Coca-Cola was then introduced in 1886, a year after Dr. Pepper was released.
The real defining moment of the drink was at the 1904 World’s Fair when Lazenby and his son-in-law J.B. O’Hara graced the crowds with the Dr Pepper drink. About 20 million people showed up to the fair and tried the yummy drink. Over the years, Dr Pepper went global, emerging on the market in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Asia, South America, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Since the 1930s, there was a persistent rumor that the drink contains prune juice, but the official Dr Pepper FAQ refutes this, saying that “Dr Pepper is a unique blend of natural and artificial flavors; it does not contain prune juice.” The origin of the rumor is unknown, but some believe a deliveryman started it for a competitor trying to cast aspersions based on the laxative effects of prune juice, but it may simply be because many people say that Dr Pepper tastes like prune juice.
Early advertisements for this soft drink made medical claims, stating that it aids digestion and restores vim, vigor, and vitality. It also held different marketing slogans like “The friendly Pepper-Upper,” “King of Beverages,” and the current slogan “There’s more to it.”
In 1951, Dr Pepper sued the Coca-Cola Company, which offered $.05-cent cokes. Dr Pepper asserted that the colas were sold below cost and were a restraint on trade.
In 1969, the then president and CEO of Dr Pepper successfully persuaded the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York – the world’s largest bottler and distributor of Coca-Cola – to bottle and distribute Dr Pepper in the metropolitan area of New York.
At one point, Dr Pepper sued Coca-Cola again, but this time for copyright infringement, when the latter came out with a Peppo, which was not just similar in name but also in taste. Peppo is a soft drink that’s also made of 23 different flavors that were released in the early 1970s. Coca-Cola updated the name to Mr. Pibb in 1972 and then to Pibb Xtra in 2001.
As with Coca-Cola, the formula for the drink is a trade secret, and allegedly, the recipe is kept as two halves in a safe deposit box in two different banks in Dallas.
The Story Behind the Dr. Pepper Name
There are many theories about the origin of the Dr Pepper name. According to the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, there is no official account of how the soda got its name, and they have more than a dozen different stories about it, but none can be verified.
In some versions of the tale, Morrison is credited with naming the drink in honor of his friend and old colleague from Rural Retreat, Virginia, Dr. Charles Pepper. However, US Census records show that a young Morrison lived in Christiansburg, Virginia, which is 40 miles away from Rural Retreat. There was also no evidence of Morrison working for Charles T. Pepper from that area.
Those who like a little more intrigue like to say that Pepper’s daughter was Morrison’s old love interest. The doctor granted Morrison permission to marry his daughter, but the story doesn’t add up because the girl in question was only eight years old when Morrison moved to Waco.
A Dr. William Alexander Reed Pepper from Christianburg is another possible inspiration for the soft drink’s name. In the census showing Morrison living in Christianburg and working as a pharmacy clerk, Dr. Pepper is recorded on a subsequent page. It appears that Dr. Pepper and Morrison lived close to each other, and Pepper is recorded to have a 16-year-old daughter at the time.
In other stories, Alderton is said to have gotten his first job working for Dr. Pepper and named the drink as a nod to his early employer.
Another explanation is that the “pep” refers to pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins into smaller peptides. Pepsin is produced in the stomach and is one of the main digestive enzymes, helping digest the proteins in food.
Or it might be a simple story. As with many sodas released in the era, Dr Pepper was marketed as a brain tonic and an energizing pick-me-up. The “pep” in pepper might be from the lift it supposedly imparted to those who drank it.
Whoever the real Dr. Pepper was, he’s probably the bespeckled, top hat-wearing country doctor from its 1920s label.
The Dr Pepper logo was redesigned in the 1950s. In the new version, the text was slanted, and the font was changed. Designers thought that the period made “Dr.” look like “Di:,” so the period was removed for legibility reasons.