A small crowd gathered in New York City’s Union Square with candlelight for the vigil. some brought their guitars and bongos to play in tribute, and others shared stories about the good old days. It was November 17, 2010, and earlier that day it had been announced that after months of legal headaches, Four Loko would remove caffeine and other stimulants from its controversial drink formula. And so a small but mighty group of New Yorkers came together to mourn their blackouts, vomiting, and raging hangovers together.
It’s been a decade since that fateful day: a decade of quieter drunken adventures, a decade of having to mix vodka and red bull yourself, a decade that enabled the rise of the no-sugar-added carbonated beverage. four loko, of course, is still available, but the original formula, affectionately dubbed “blackout in a can” and, frankly, a menace to society, has been off the shelves for ten years. And while the rise and fall of the original four loko occurred in less than two years, few products have made such a lasting impression on the American drinking consciousness.
in 2005, ohio state fraternity alumni jeff wright, jaisen freeman, and christopher hunter decided the world needed a high-caffeinated, super-caffeinated alcoholic beverage, apparently because people still weren’t making enough stupid things on your own. Inspired by the popularity of an energy beer called sparks, they set out to produce a cherry-flavored, vodka-style malt beverage they named Four because it contained four notable ingredients: caffeine, taurine, guarana, and absinthe (the stuff from which absinthe is made). it was a failure. but you know what they say it always works when your product fails?
In its second iteration, from 2008, the one that would elevate the drink’s notoriety, four gained their “loko,” growing to the size of a tall child, cutting absinthe, and taking on a striking neon camouflage appearance. the alcohol content also doubled, taking the six-pack to a whopping 12 percent abv. Freeman told Grub Street that once the new cans hit the New York warehouses, “it was pretty immediate…we couldn’t do it fast enough.” the drink, with as much alcoholic punch as about four beers and as much caffeine as about a cup and a half of coffee, tasted terribly sweet, like squirts of rotten fruit. in completely unscientific terms, it screwed you up so much because the caffeine masked the effects of alcohol for a while, leading you to drink more than you otherwise would.
Arguably the craziest drink to hit the market since real cocaine was in Coke, Four Loko’s revenue doubled from $45 million in 2009 to at least $100 million in 2010, Wright said. there are stories of accidental nude thefts and hallucinations attributed to four loko. There’s been a whole genre of Cuatro Loko rap music on YouTube since the summer of 2010, a website dedicated to Cuatro Loko stories, and Reddit threads full of people’s craziest nights out. but the fun could not last.
Universities across the country began banning four loko after student hospitalizations were linked to drinking. several lawsuits were filed by families alleging that their children’s deaths were caused or related to drinking four loko. (four loko statements at the time cited “underage drinking and alcohol abuse” issues). In November 2010, the Federal Trade Commission sent a warning letter to several producers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, including the makers of Joose, Max, Core High Gravity. , and moonshot, urging them to “take prompt and appropriate action to protect consumers.” All of this led to several states, including New York, seeking to ban four loko, which brings us to the story of a legendary act by an elected official.
new york state assemblyman felix ortiz introduced legislation to ban four loko and other caffeinated alcoholic beverages in his state in the fall of 2010. soon after, nbc news asked him if he could drink some himself to see what exactly the drink did to one’s body. don’t knock it until you try it, as the old adage goes. he agreed, “to show exactly how detrimental and dangerous this was to our children’s health.” and so, under the supervision of the doctors, ortiz proceeded to drink “one or two” four lokos, watched as his blood pressure rose wildly and he vomited violently. “I think they gave me two or three slices of pizza, trying to bring me back,” he said of the experiment. (Imagine all the fun we’d have if politicians weren’t allowed to ban things without publicly testing them first.)
but with several pending lawsuits against them and the threat of the ftc looming, the creators of four loko got ahead of the problem and announced, on November 17, 2010, that they would remove caffeine, taurine, and guarana from your recipe. New Yorkers took to Union Square to mourn.
The company was left with $30 million of unsaleable inventory that we can only assume some warehouse rats had a couple of crazy nights with. but inventory that was already in the world when the ban was announced…that’s a different story. distributors had until December 10 to stop selling their existing stock, and collectors soon went on strike. New York college students bought entire shares of wineries to resell to their friends; cases went for unheard of prices on ebay and craigslist. Eddie Huang’s Xiao Ye Bar, which was hosting four-loko all-you-can-drink happy hours on the lower east side, was shut down after its third four-loko bust in a matter of weeks. It was prohibition again.
Finally, the black market dried up and all we are left with today, ten years later, is a sickly sweet, high alcohol, caffeine free drink in a camouflage can. Earlier this year, Four Loko even released a 12 percent abv hard seltzer. while trying to maintain the image of the brand; it is marketed as “the strongest sparkling water in the universe”. which, well, is tougher than a white claw. But even the “blackout in a can” company has jumped on the “healthy” mineral water bandwagon.
Still, the legend of the four loko lives on.
my brother, who was born in 2001 and currently attends university in ontario, canada, where four loko was never legal in the first place, knows exactly what it is when i ask. and he defines it as an alcoholic energy drink, even though it hasn’t been an alcoholic energy drink since he was in elementary school. Throughout the world, including in the South American, Mexican and Chinese markets, Four Loko is today regarded as the crown jewel of the American frat drink. its reputation has outlived its actual effects by a decade.
Was the original four loko really that destructive, or was it the fact that it was only available for a brief blackout in time that cemented it into an urban legend? today’s young adults may never know. unless…