The ups and downs of caffeinated booze
If they do stop it, can’t we just combine ’em ourselves?
Wed, Sep 30, 2009 (3 p.m.)
For thousands of years, human beings have enjoyed the pleasures of alcohol. Caffeine occupies a similar place in our history and our hearts. At some point along the way, a curious alchemist combined the two, and his experiments paved the way for Irish coffee and rum & Coke. In the late 1990s, tipplers looking for a late-night boost started drinking Red Bull & vodka, and the popularity of that concoction has led to a booming market of brewers and distillers hoping to establish their products as the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of the alcoholic-beverage industry. Robert Lehrman, a Washington, D.C., attorney, has compiled a list of more than 150 such products at his website, Bevlaw.com.
BooYa Tequila, Freaky Ice Vodka, Moonshot Beer, Gravity ShotPak Vodka: As you can see, it’s perfectly legal in America to give your alcoholic beverage a goofy name. According to FDA guidelines, it’s also legal to feature caffeine in your product’s ingredient list, as long as you include no more than 71 milligrams per 12 ounces.
Even though these products are legal, as many as 30 state attorneys general have been waging a campaign to remove them from store shelves. Not every caffeinated alcohol brand is under fire, however. Instead, the campaign focuses on that subset of the market designed to look and taste like traditional, fruit-flavored energy drinks. Last year, the two biggest players in the marketplace, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, decided that the adverse publicity they might get for selling such products outweighed the relatively tiny amount of revenue they were generating. MillerCoors stripped its product, Sparks, of all caffeine and other stimulants. Anheuser-Busch abandoned the category altogether.
Now, the attorneys general are going after smaller brands like Four Loko and Joose. These products are under fire not so much for what they are—fruit-flavored malt beverages with 9 to 11 percent alcohol by volume and an undisclosed amount of caffeine and other legal stimulants—but for who buys them: college students, who want to stay wired while getting hammered. That, of course, doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy state to pursue. According to one well-publicized study of approximately 4,000 college students at 10 universities, 24 percent of students who drink alcohol these days combine it with energy drinks, and these students are twice as likely to hurt themselves while drinking than students who stick to alcohol alone.
Get products like Four Loko and Joose off store shelves, the theory behind the crackdown goes, and you’ll … well, actually, it’s not all that clear what this would accomplish. After all, it’s not as if you have to be a chemistry major to mix bourbon and Coke. If every can of Four Loko and Joose on the planet were dumped into the gutter, Prohibition-style, you could still pour a shot of Irish whiskey into your Frappuccino. You could still slam a six-pack while nibbling on some Perky Jerky (100 percent all-natural beef sticks seasoned with 75 milligrams of caffeine per ounce).
Ultimately, then, what this all boils down to is that numerous state attorneys general are devoting part of their busy schedules toward making convenience illegal! Granted, it probably can’t hurt to teach today’s lazy college students a thing or two about hard work. (Why, in the old days, college students had to crush up a Vivarin and mix it with Malt Ducks if they wanted to get buzzed and wired at the same time …) But the notion that banning commercially produced, caffeinated alcohol products—goodbye, Starbucks Coffee Liqueur!—will somehow stop or even cut down on the consumption of caffeinated alcohol seems as far-fetched as the notion that banning fast-food restaurants could somehow thwart the obesity epidemic.
In addition to battling convenience, the attorneys general waging this campaign also object to the ways in which brands like Four Loko and Joose market themselves. On their websites, for example, they post enthusiastic user testimonials like this one: “You just gotta drink it and drink it and drink it and drink it and not even worry about it because it’s awesome and you’re just partying and having fun and getting wild and drinking it! Woooohooooo!!!”
Call it reckless. Call it sensationalistic. But in its own moronic, fruit-flavored way, such party-hard candor is a refreshing alternative to the “drink responsibly” message so many brewers and distillers adopt in order to sell their products on TV. Indeed, the idea that you can only sell booze in America as long as you pretend that no one actually drinks to get drunk has always been a pretty tough shot to swallow.