clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Four Loko, Joose, and Sparks: an abridged history of caffeinated alcohol

Why is everyone so nostalgic for messing up their bodies?

FDA Investigates Dangers Of New Caffeinated Alcoholic Drinks Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Remembrances of Four Loko — the super-caffeinated, alcoholic energy drink available in every convenience store for a narrow window of time before intervention by the Food and Drug Administration at the end of the aughts — are their own genre of internet content.

It is, if there is such a thing, the internet’s beverage, even years after the demise of its original formula. “If you can remember your Four Loko experiences, it wasn’t a Four Loko experience,” comedian Kady Ruth recently tweeted, in response to a question from comedian Akilah Hughes asking for stories about the drink’s golden age. “Why tell, when you can show a photo series?” dancer and YouTuber Ava Gordy replied, attaching an image of herself surrounded by Four Loko cans and wearing a gas mask. Photos from Four Loko’s golden days are scattered around on Tumblr and Imgur, captured with the high-flash, red-eyed weirdness of disposable cameras and early iPhones.

In an oral history of Four Loko, published on Grub Street last summer, the team of Ohio State buddies who created it explained how the product went from a small production run in 2005 to a splashy New York City debut in 2009 to more than $100 million in revenue in 2010. In short: They made the cans tall and they gave them a neon camouflage print to make them stand out. Plus, they raised the alcohol level as high as they legally could for a malt beverage.

2010 sounds like such a long time ago that I was honestly surprised when one of the Gawker pieces about the moment mentioned the fact that Obama was president. I wasn’t old enough to drink or permitted to have more than one other person in my car at the time, but even I feel a bubbly sort of weakness in my chest reading a blog post about the founder of Ron Jon Surf Shops getting arrested for driving under the influence of Four Loko or a blog post about Chuck Schumer comparing Four Loko to “a plague” devastating the country.

Four Loko was beloved, and it is beloved in death. But why? What’s so great about caffeinated sugar-water full of booze, in a can, retailing for $2.50, other than the obvious? The drink is infamous, and maybe an important cultural moment, but it’s not unique. There were also micro-eras for the nearly identical drinks Sparks and Joose, and the vodka Red Bull got almost two decades. In fact, there’s a long history of people trying to showily ruin their nights or their lives with disgusting combinations of chemicals dreamed up for some business purpose that doesn’t especially concern them. Caffeine and alcohol shouldn’t mix, but they have always mixed.

“People are always looking for a way to get high,” William Rorabaug, a historian at the University of Washington, tells me. “Throughout history. It seems to be part of the human condition.”

The last super-boozy generation was the baby boomers, he explains, but their children got into a health kick — yoga, meditation, bicycles, running — mostly because they saw a lot of bad stuff happen to their parents and older siblings as a result of alcohol, and because they preferred marijuana. Mothers Against Drunk Driving got big in the 1980s, and heavy alcohol consumption dipped throughout the 1990s. It didn’t rise again until about 2003, he says, when “very sweet mixed drinks” that went down easy and would mess you up with sugar and alcohol at the time became more popular.

Philip Dobard, vice president of the National Food and Beverage Foundation, explains to me that the drinking age was lower when he was a teenager, which was in the 1970s, and that he really liked drinking Long Island iced teas. Though they’ve been rebranded as premium cocktails in recent years, Long Island iced teas used to be Diet Coke and the leftover dregs of various well spirits. “It was the vodka Red Bull of its day,” he reminisces. “It was high alcohol, not particularly high caffeine, but caffeine. It was a test of one’s humanity. A test of one’s mortality. You’re young and healthy and you’re not familiar with loss. Injuries, when they occur, quickly heal.”

A current fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about mixing caffeine and alcohol states that it makes drinkers feel too alert (when they should feel sleepy and want to stop drinking or at least sit down and not risk “alcohol-attributable harms”). It also points out that “caffeine has no effect on the metabolism of alcohol by the liver ... (it does not ‘sober you up’) or reduce impairment due to alcohol consumption,” and some studies have found people who mix caffeine and alcohol are three times more likely to leave a bar while still heavily intoxicated and four time more likely to attempt to drive home.

But caffeinated alcohol and the type of high it provides is communal, Dobard notes. It’s almost charming, to want to strip yourself of inhibitions in the presence of people you like. “I don’t think that impulse is new,” Dobard adds. “I think the commercial forces are new.”

He’s right. The vodka Red Bull was invented in the late ’90s by none other than … Red Bull, which chased athletes in ski towns and the rave scene on the West Coast by giving cases of free energy drinks to bartenders, even paying them thousands of dollars to put it on the menu. The first mainstream alcohol and fortified caffeine beverage was an industry plant.

As Haley Hamilton noted in MEL’s recent oral history of the vodka Red Bull, combining alcohol with caffeine has a two-part effect: “The alcohol can dull the effects of the caffeine (boring), or more problematically, the caffeine can dull the effects of the alcohol, meaning you can drink way more than you normally would without feeling super-hammered.” Dobard is not personally familiar with Four Loko, but sympathizes with the plight of a generation that just wants to get as drunk as everyone else got to.

“There’s nothing inherently illicit about combining caffeine and alcohol,” he points out, adding that coffee liqueurs and coffee-based cocktails have been around for hundreds of years, commonly used as post-dinner digestifs. “The problem occurs when there’s so much of one or the other and it’s so available that it becomes easily and widely abused as a substance. That’s typically when government agencies step in and recognize it as a public health risk.”

(In 2010, the New York Times offered the following very funny, very ahistoric thought on the demand for Four Loko: “It has long vexed club-hoppers and partygoers: how do you stay awake while drinking alcohol late into the night? For years, alcohol and soda sufficed.” Imagine if we’d just cool-mom-blind-eyed everyone for choosing to drink gas station cocktails instead of doing cocaine!)

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan commented on the persecution of Four Loko in 2010, writing that it was part of a “full-blown scapegoating operation,” and pointing out the obvious: “Isn’t the real issue here that kids are stupid?”

That’s a fair question. Budweiser’s alcohol-and-caffeine drink BE was a hit in the United States in the early to mid-aughts but flopped immediately when tested overseas in 2006. Caffeinated alcohol is a distinctly American flavor of stupid. We do it over and over.

A can of Joose, which is 23.5 ounces, contains approximately 380 calories. (Compared to modern Four Loko, which is 660.) While both had 12 percent alcohol by volume and were fortified with caffeine, Joose had a few differentiating features, beyond the fact it was 40 cents cheaper and covered in skulls.

Sparks actually preceded both, and MillerCoors voluntarily removed the caffeine in 2008, before Four Loko even hit its stride. In the two years between its $215 million acquisition from the McKenzie River Corporation and this quiet surrender, Sparks had a 90 percent share of the “alcopop” market, which meant that with its death, Four Loko was primed to become an easy hit.

Today, even in the midst of the “wellness” boom, young people still post exuberantly about knocking back cans of Four Loko and making bad decisions, even though the caffeine has been removed and the current drink is no more dangerous than a wine cooler. In June 2016, long after Four Loko had been rereleased sans caffeine, the strange college journalism platform Odyssey Online published a guide to matching Four Loko flavors with your personality. “Gold Loko is a VERY IMPORTANT new flavor,” the possibly underage author wrote. “The people who drink these LOVE to live on the edge. They aren’t afraid of the challenge (of the added 2 percent alcohol volume).”

But it’s not special. None of it is special. I was a straitlaced high school soccer player during the Four Loko years, but I do remember, with a warm sort of disgust, the acrid taste of college ingenuity — tequila and blue Gatorade, whiskey and strawberry-kiwi Snapple, etc. There was no reason we couldn’t have chosen slightly less revolting combinations, except for the fact that it was kind of romantic not to. In 20 years, are you going to post throwback pics of a rum and Coke? It’s not shorthand for anything, and you would probably drink one now.

In November 2010, one of Four Loko’s creators, Chris Hunter, defended the drink vehemently to Fast Company, arguing that it had the same amount of caffeine as a Starbucks coffee, less alcohol than most craft beers, and less seductive packaging than a Bud Light Lime, and that dozens of other alcoholic beverages were available in the same 24-ounce cans. Asked about a widely publicized incident at Washington State University in which nine college students ended up hospitalized, with Four Loko cited throughout the police report, Hunter got even more defensive, telling reporter Austin Carr:

The police report showed there was supposedly illegal drugs at the party. That was mentioned about 14 times in the police report. There were multiple mentions of hard liquor, but there were only a few, maybe 2 to 3, mentions of Four Loko. It’s really unfair to say our drink was the cause of this.

The same month, his company reached a voluntary agreement with the New York State Liquor Authority to stop shipping Four Loko into the state, and the FDA issued a public warning about caffeine as an “unsafe additive” to alcoholic beverages, as well as private letters to four manufacturers — including Four Loko’s Phusion Projects — that stated, “[The] FDA is not aware of any publicly available data to establish affirmatively safe conditions of use for caffeine added directly to alcoholic beverages and packaged in a combined form.”

The FDA’s letter was sent to Charge Beverages Corporation (which made drinks called Core High Gravity HG Green and Core High Gravity HG Orange), New Century Brewing Company (which made the fortified beer Moonshot), and United Brands, which made Joose.

Jonathan Howland, a community health researcher at Boston University, told Science Daily just after the ban on Four Loko, “Although several manufacturers of caffeinated beer have withdrawn their products from the market, there is no sign that young people have decreased the practice of combining alcohol and energy drinks.”

There have been other gross party beverages meant to recapture the thrill of alcoholic energy drinks without drawing the same unwanted attention. Whipped Lightning, a combination of sugar, heavy cream, grain alcohol, and artificial flavoring had a brief heyday. Forty-proof chocolate milk did not quite. The super-cheap bottled sangria brand Capriccio had a moment, which the company leaned into, saying, “Believe the hype!” MEL’s Miles Klee recently sampled every flavor of a Mark Cuban-endorsed juice-box wine cooler called BeatBox, which has hideous, brightly colored marketing materials and a low price point, but concluded that its 11.1 percent alcohol content wasn’t really enough for anything other than an “unremarkable, if quietly pleasant weekend.”

In fact, even the FDA seems to be over the whole incident. When asked whether it would involve itself in the rise of alcohol-infused cold brew — such as those offered by the California-based Cafe Agave or the forthcoming offering from Skyy Vodka, announced March 15 — a spokesperson said the agency only considers products on a case-by-case basis, when action seems called for, and would have to get back to me.

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.