Four Loko is the most talked about but least drunk libation in America. Michigan recently joined Utah, Oklahoma, and Washington in banning the alcoholic energy drink. And last weekend, Connecticut and New York strong-armed distributors into agreeing to stop delivering the boozy concoction.
The bans and scare stories intend to dissuade the public. But for drinkers, they pique our curiosity. Whoever said all publicity is good publicity probably works for Four Loko now.
I embark upon a quest not unlike Ponce de Leon's search for the Fountain of Youth or the Crusaders' attempts to drink from the Holy Grail. I long to sip the mythical Four Loko from its multicolored aluminum chalice (which can be redeemed for five cents here in Massachusetts).
I go in search of Four Loko at the supermarket-style liquor store down the street. The customer is immediately confronted with a complementary wine tasting. Cheese and crackers accompany. A policeman stalks, not because the store attracts shady customers but because the proprietors wish to scare them away. Grey Goose, Chimay, and Dom Perignon jump from the shelves into the affluent shopper's carriage. You have arrived if you buy booze here. But has Four Loko arrived? Where is the 24-ounce sensation sweeping the nation?
I migrate from uptown to the bowels of the city. Here I won't find Four Loko. Four Loko will find me. In this liquor store's parking lot, keep-the-meter-running cabs await DUI-offenders dissuaded from driving but not from drinking. Inside, Bay State bottle-bill beneficiaries cash-in on can collection. At the register, sales of singles, nips, and discount 30-packs prevail. If not Four Loko here, Four Loko where?
A long walk to the back cooler brings me no closer to the coveted elixir. But I migrate leftward and the products steadily become more affordable and less delectable. At the ghetto end of the ice box -- where 40-ouncers and malt liquors reside -- the colorful can cacophony for which I search explodes in view: Watermelon, Fruit Punch, Grape, Orange, Blue Raspberry, Lemon Lime, Lemonade, and Cranberry Lemonade. After much inspection and indecision, I select Watermelon and Fruit Punch. As if this Four Loko Eden couldn't get any more heavenly, the cashier asks for $2.68 per can. It's the alcohol equal of a six-pack. But it's the cash-register superior.
Should I mistake the oversize king cans for, say, Arizona Iced Tea, banner lettering near the mouth reminds: "CONTAINS ALCOHOL." What would be redundant on an ominous bottle of Jack Daniel's is necessary on the bright and bouncy can of Four Loko. Mixed-message schizophrenia prevails. And in case underage consumers missed that alcohol notification, the can features a "WE ID" button. Despite the container's promise, neither the manufacturer nor the cashier asks for my license. The product that neo-prohibitionist solons and snobbish supermarket-style liquor stores have tried to deny me, I finally obtain.
But to properly prepare for this nectar of the godless, I lubricate its path with several Busch beers and fill my stomach with dinner for its anticipated guest. At long last, I crack the can.
Four Loko, we have met before. Then, you called yourself Mad Dog 20/20. Or was it Peach Schnapps? You are known by different monikers (Bacardi 151, Power Master, Night Train, etc.). But beneath your many guises your intent is forever the same: to get people really drunk really fast really cheap.
The Fruit Punch variant is saccharine sweet and heavily carbonated. Its taste evokes a wine cooler, but malt liquor -- buried beneath sugars and sweeteners -- is its well-disguised base. There is a strong aftertaste. A drinker might find one pleasant enough; but the sticky-sweet remnant in the throat is a vomit-bomb ready to explode upon added ammunition. Moderation, because of the masked alcohol, because of the caffeine, because of the overpowering sweetness, seems the key here.
A discussion with a drinking partner concludes that my can of Four Loko recalls Luden's cherry cough drops or that cheap powder-based children's fruit punch known colloquially as bug juice. We decide his Watermelon version seems based on Jolly Rancher candy. "This is geared toward minors," he matter-of-factly explains. "No adult wants to buy a can that has five different colors or a crazy color scheme."
The many warnings of its potency compel me to slowly imbibe it over 90 minutes. On a scale of One to Four Loko, I am only a Two Loko. Despite my caution, the drawn out drinking rescues me from sober to buzz. And it does so in a sneaky manner akin to Red Bull and vodka, the popular bar drink that also combines the depressant alcohol with the stimulants taurine, caffeine, guarana, and sugar. It's a different drunk.
There is no movement to ban Red Bull and vodka, or rum and Coke and Irish coffee for that matter. Drinkers have been combining alcohol with stimulants for centuries. What's different here is that manufacturers, rather than drinkers or their bartenders, are mixing the booze with caffeine at the factory. That, combined with its nice price and viral marketing toward inexperienced drinkers, provokes the ire of paternalistic Puritans forever obsessed with what people unlike them do for amusement.
Just a few days after my experiment, I am alive but Four Loko's survival is precarious. A Massachusetts commission plans to impose a statewide ban on Monday, and with the encouragement of professional scold Chuck Schumer, the Food and Drug Administration has clobbered the strange brew, too. I got my taste before the government took it away.
Aside from an outright ban, there are calls to increase taxes on such drinks or make the labeling more explicit. But a better idea than can be gleaned from the Food and Drug Administration's newly introduced visual warnings against cigarettes. If a cancer ward image accurately relays the story of tobacco use, then certainly the picture of a girls-gone-wild sorority house sums up the thousand words of Four Loko. Alas, telling the truth will only increase its popularity.