When my friends arrived at the party, they weren't my friends anymore.
It was this past January, when I still lived in Florida, and we were at a house they called the Junkyard. I was waiting for a band to set up when my friends stumbled into the garage, having walked back from the gas station across the street.
They were loud and rowdy, their tongues stained neon colors, and their breath smelled like Jolly Ranchers. Their jittery hands clutched paper-covered tall boys, the garish cans beneath looking like they were dressed for a rave. These kids were not only curiously pumped for the show, but they stayed pumped through the early morning dance party that happened afterward.
When my friends arrived at the party, they weren't my friends any more. They had changed. They were Loko.
Back then, I didn't think much of Four Loko, the new star of the alcoholic energy drink craze. When I started college in 2005, I knew plenty of kids who swore by Sparks, the pre-Four Loko-era beverage of choice for the energy deficient. The type of people who drank Sparks were the type of people who, exhausted from going out the night before, pre-gamed with the caffeine-alcohol hybrid, using the boost to hit the bar until closing time. They kept it going through an after-party or hangout session, didn't get to sleep until four in the morning or well after, woke up the next day feeling like crap, and then started the whole cycle over again. Their mouths were always stained orange.
The benefits of Sparks were common knowledge. However, by Sept. 2008, its distributor, MillerCoors LLC, removed the caffeine. Someone in Gainesville threw a wake in its honor.
But 10 months after my first encounter with Four Loko, and suddenly the media can't stop fussing about this newer concoction, which has been on the market since 2008. Suddenly the Federal Drug Administration is crying foul, and the drink's creator is caving in to the pressure. And I think I speak for my entire generation, or the members that drink alcohol at least, when I ask: Just what's the big deal?
This question is what led me to the Kangaroo on North Meeting Street, that one by all the strip clubs, at noon on a Thursday. I was going to buy some Four Loko.
I tried to do it as inconspicuously as possible. I spotted the case with the non-alcoholic energy drinks, the Rock Stars and the Monsters, and even a few cans of Sparks; I knew Four Loko couldn't be far away. I grabbed three of 'em — Lemonade, Fruit Punch, and Watermelon — and shoved them under my arm.
I walked up to the counter, attempting to go unnoticed but garnering suspicious looks from the clerk. When it was my turn, she checked my ID, laughed that I looked so young, and rang me up at $2.79 a can. It's probably one of the most embarrassing purchases I've ever made.
Back at the office, with the comfort of knowing that a designated driver was readily available, I popped the first tab. That familiar sound, that separation of aluminum from aluminum, that "tsssssssss," was the signal: Let's get this party started.
I should preface the rest of this tale with a warning that my Four Loko experience does not match the Four Loko experience of the average 23-year-old. I did not ingest it in preparation for a night of debauchery; I drank it at the City Paper office in a controlled environment. This is not a story of bar fights, nudity, or hospitalization for alcohol poisoning. But it is the truth.
Back at my desk, the Lemonade flavor seemed the most appealing, and so I opened it first. This project that I was about to embark on was by no means a companionless task. Joined by a few other members of the editorial staff, I grabbed a plastic cup from our break room and poured myself a small portion.
Out of the can, the Lemonade looked harmless enough, like something your eight-year-old neighbor would sell at a homemade stand. But it smelled like beer. And after my initial mouthful, I knew it tasted somewhere in between the two.
Do you ever reach a point in a night of drinking when you move on to something new, take a sip, and your stomach hits a wall? It's like it's saying to you, "Whoa now, (Insert Name Here). Maybe it's time to rethink where the night is headed. Whatever you just put in me isn't too keen on getting friendly with the beer, the whiskey, and whatever else you've got in me at the moment. Shut it down."
That's what the first swallow of Four Loko feels like. Your body knows that this is a colossal mistake. It doesn't want you to go any further. And that was before the repulsive aftertaste kicked in. But proceed you must.
Around the office, the drink's taste received comparisons to Flintstones vitamins, but I think the description given by contributing writer Kinsey Gidick sums it up perfectly: "It tastes like Robitussin, melted sno cone, and shame."
Within the hour, I was feeling the effects. I had stomached a third of a cup of the Lemonade and moved on to an equal amount of the Fruit Punch. This one was a pale pink and gave off the scent of hard candy. Arts Editor Erica Jackson Curran said it might look classy in a champagne flute, gussied up with a fruit skewer, maraschino cherries, a tiny umbrella. But the taste certainly gave it away.
It was like being drunk, but lighter, brighter, warmer. And faster. So much faster. I couldn't tell what was hitting me: the caffeine or the alcohol. And that's precisely what makes Four Loko so controversial. In an Oct. 26 article, The New York Times quoted a Pennsylvania doctor who had treated more than a dozen Four Loko victims in a span of three months. He said, "It's a recipe for disaster because your body's natural defense is to get sleepy and not want to drink, but in this case you're tricking the body with the caffeine."
For my third serving, I decided to throw caution to the wind and mix the two flavors (we were saving the third can for photos or, as I like to believe, to eventually sell on the black market). It was at this point that my managing editor cut me off, which was probably for the best. I had already developed that false feeling that with more drinking would come more awesomeness. I needed to keep in mind that I had to get to sleep that night at a decent hour.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in a state of buzz. I was giddy. And I was still conscious enough to do my work, but man, did it take a long time. Writing the Weekend Round-Up, something that might usually take me an hour, tops, was suddenly twice as hard. All I really wanted to do was eat tortilla chips and spend time on Twitter. And that's saying a lot. Because I mostly hate Twitter.
But by 4 p.m., it was wearing off. I was starting to get thirsty, and my teeth hurt. (Fact: According to dailyburn.com, a 23.5 ounce can of Four Loko has 60 grams of sugar and 660 calories.) The alcohol went first, but the hyperactivity remained. If it had been a regular night, I'd probably follow my special drink with a whiskey ginger or gin and tonic, maybe a beer, something to keep the inebriation going. And I'd definitely have the stamina to do so.
On Nov. 16, Phusion Projects, the company that makes Four Loko wussed out and decided to ditch the caffeine, right before the FDA officially threatened Phusion, as well as three other companies that make caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
They're still going to make Four Loko. Because what people really want is for their alcohol to taste like Skittles. Actually, that doesn't sound too bad to me. Especially if the a.b.v. remains at 12 percent, and if it stays so cheap.
But in my own experience with Four Loko — granted it was a party-free one — I didn't get too loco. Though it was touch and go there for a few hours, by the time I left work at 5 p.m., I was feeling fine. I hadn't made any huge mistakes, save for a typo or two that took much longer than normal to correct. I didn't try to make out with anyone. I didn't puke up a multicolored mess of goo in the office bathroom. I didn't even pee that much, which was a major concern considering that Four Loko is double the diuretic and I already pee a lot as it is.
I got home, spent my remaining energy on a bike ride, and eventually managed to get to sleep that night at a decent hour.
You know what they say, kids: Everything in moderation.