Four Loko's Wild Ride Into Illegality
America is a country of alcohol drinkers. Outside of a brief dalliance with prohibition that went about as well as trying to ban water, the United States has long had a deep-rooted, if somewhat tenuous, relationship with alcohol. Whether it’s college comedy movies or just a weird cultural emphasis of the perpetually bad idea that is shots, the BAC of the USA is consistently high. Even among the party-heavy culture of the USA, however, there is one particular beverage, and time, that is remembered with a mixture of fear and nostalgia, like the memory of a babysitter showing you a horror movie years too early. I’m talking about the era of Four Loko.
Some of us lived through the heyday of Four Loko, and some have only heard tales to inspire second-hand curiosity. At this point the drink is so much the stuff of legend that I assume even those who were learning multiplication tables when the real version was on sale are aware of its basic properties. As someone whose college years almost exactly line up with the years in which it was available in its full power form, I have spine-shuddering memories of the stuff.
On the rare chance you’ve never been regaled with the tale of the Icarus-like flight of Four Loko, or aren’t aware of what the beverage was, here’s a quick crash-course that makes me feel hungover just typing it. Four Loko was a twenty-three ounce can of low-grade alcohol, sugar water, and active ingredients poached from energy drinks. It punched in at a liver-curdling twelve percent alcohol by volume, meaning that one can contained the equivalent of something like 5 beers. It came in a variety of flavors, all of which tasted like chugging the overflow trough of a Slurpee machine.
It was basically an unholy marriage between hobo wine and gas station energy drinks that was designed to put you in a bush. It was a drink built to strengthen and then end friendships on alternate weekends. I have to imagine career bouncers think of the years it was at full strength as a dark, dark time, and half of them probably still have a physical scar from the altercations it caused. Of course, the imbibees didn’t escape without physical damage themselves, which is what ultimately caused a remarkably swift move from the FDA to curtail the caffeinated portion of the drink.
So what exactly was the wax-winged trajectory of Four Loko? Let’s take a look at the dark timeline (by which I mean completely blacked out) of the world’s most brutal tall boy.
The Mild-Mannered Debut Of Sparks
Far before the FDA was involved and Four Loko was filling dorm room hampers with vomit, there was Sparks. The drink debuted much more quietly than Four Loko, perhaps because it was created without pure chaotic intent, and maybe more in line with the more societally palatable Red Bull & Vodka. It came in 16 ounce cans decorated like batteries, with the altogether more reasonable alcohol percentage of 6%, and I can tell you from personal experience, tasted entirely more like something intended for human consumption and not for powering a lawnmower. This put it much more in line with a traditional tall boy than with the jet fuel that was Four Loko, a peer in the market that would ultimately ruin it for everybody.
Four Loko Stumbles Onto The Scene
In 2005, Four Loko was invented by 3 Ohio State students whose stated previous experience with beverage development was in the basement of their frat. This all makes a lot of sense, since Four Loko really was just a particularly dangerous strain of frat party jungle juice that somehow became nationally distributed. Its formulation was distinctly the strategy of chuckling college boys–make it as alcoholic as possible, add Red Bull ingredients, and top it off with the faux-hallucinogenic favorite, wormwood. They got it into cans, miraculously without any of them dissolving, and began to distribute it around Columbus.
Heavy Lies The Crown
The 2005 version of Four Loko was slowly crawling along, but wasn’t able to find mainstream success. Perhaps, like the jungle juice it seems to be designed after, it was still a little too threatening to build a line at the cooler. The founders decided to reformulate, with the biggest emphasis being the removal of the absinthe active ingredient of wormwood and a focus on improved flavor. Knowing now that the final formula was “improved” in flavor makes it unsurprising the first iteration wasn’t a big hit. Wormwood could have a lot to do with this, as anyone who’s had absinthe can tell you that outside of alcoholic curiosity or a need to seem interesting at a bar, it is a fairly horrible drink.
2008 is also the year where the aforementioned Sparks chose to voluntarily exit the caffeinated alcoholic beverage scene, perhaps sensing things to come. Now owned by MillerCoors, I assume their legal team smelled the underage puke on the horizon and told them to get the f**k out of the business. They certainly missed out on big money, however, as Four Loko had an absolutely meteoric rise as distribution grew across the US over the next two years. From California surfers waking up in sand dunes to NYU students trying to fight fake Spider-man in Times Square, Four Loko had injected itself into the bloodstream of the country.
Four Loko’s Fall From Grace
The timeline of Four Loko’s business, poetically, followed pretty much the identical trajectory of an actual night drinking Four Loko. It started with boundless energy, a feeling of total invincibility and confidence, and then ended in the hospital. Though the FDA had already been looking into the drink, in 2010 a rash of college student hospitalizations connected to Four Loko forced their hand. Colleges, retailers, and even whole-ass states banned the sale of the cursed drink. At first, Four Loko made motions to fight back, but perhaps, seeing the writing on the wall, voluntarily removed the caffeine and energy components of the beverage in November of 2010.
And so the “good” times ceased to roll. Four Loko still exists, but it now lives in the domain of the bang-for-your-buck daily alcoholic more than anyone looking to have a genuinely good time. Do I miss it? No. No, I really don’t. But I would still love to hear your Four Loko stories in the comments.