In 2010, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” was the song of the summer, the iPhone 4 was cutting-edge smartphone technology, and oversized, camouflage-printed cans filled with hypercaffeinated super-booze were fueling New York’s party scene. Against all odds, that fluorescent drink — the notorious Four Loko — was completely legal and widely available, until it very quickly wasn’t. New York regulators shut down the party almost instantly, marking a definitive turning point in what the city and state would tolerate from alcohol marketers. But while it lasted, Four Loko’s run made it New York City’s go-to “blackout in a can.” This is the story of that run, as told by the people who lived it (or at least, the parts of it that they remember).
After meeting at Ohio State, business partners Jeff Wright, Jaisen Freeman, and Christopher Hunter decided to start their own alcohol business. Inspired by the popularity of Red Bull–and-vodka and an “energy beer” called Sparks, the group decided to create a new product for the caffeinated-alcohol segment.
Jaisen Freeman, Four Loko co-creator: When we first started, we had the concept, and we needed a name. We went through a couple different name variations, but either they were already taken, or they were close to something, or we couldn’t get it approved by the TTB. We thought numbers were successful, and there were basically four key ingredients, so that’s where the number “four” came from. And then it was a crazy blend of flavors. That was really what our thinking was.
Jeffrey Wright, Four Loko co-creator: We got an SBA loan and had our first production run in 2005. We had to find a contract manufacturer, find a flavor house that would send us samples on a monthly basis. We’d say, “We want it to taste like strawberry with 6 percent alcohol.” We were basically the consumer-research product-development team.
Freeman: It was like cherry vodka. That’s what we were aiming at, though it didn’t come out that way. We had a close group of friends that were our quasi tasting panel/research group. It was really our friends and family that finally said, “This is kind of good, I might drink this, I might buy this.” And we’re like, okay, we finally got something that we think is palatable, and that we want to go to market with.
Wright: We were driving all across the country, working with distributors, just trying to get the product out on the shelf. I’d go back a week later to some of these markets, even months later, and the product was still there — the same product that we sold them. So at that point we knew we were in trouble. We needed to pivot and make some key product changes based on consumers’ response.
Freeman: There are a couple different things we changed. We made the package size bigger because most consumers were drinking the tallboy, 24-ounce cans. We raised the alcohol level, and the flavors we came out with tasted better — relatively speaking. No one would ever say “We love the taste of Four Loko,” but these were better tasting relative to what we had.
Wright: The camo-print can was a way to stand out on shelves, sitting next to cans that were silver or white.
Freeman: One thing that most people don’t realize is every alcohol product is so highly regulated. First you have to get a federal approval, and then you got to get each state to approve it. We had gone through every single thing, and everyone was like, “Yeah, this is fine.” The government actually had a limit on the amount of caffeine you could have in the product. They gave us the red line. So we’re like, “Alright, so we’re good.”
By 2009, the new iteration of Four Loko — 12 percent alcohol content; caffeine, guarana, and taurine; a selection of flavors that included Fruit Punch, Lemonade, and UVA Berry (a.k.a. grape); sold in a camouflage-print can — was successful enough that the team decided to tackle the New York market.
Freeman: We had already been successful in other areas, so it wasn’t like a start-up. We went to the distributors, and they’re like, “Well, this is New York, you know? You may be successful in the midwest, and the West Coast and South, but this is different here.” We’re like, “Okay, just put it in put in the bodegas, and you’ll see what’s going to happen.” And it was pretty immediate. A lot of the bodega owners are either family or friends, so they talk, and once something’s moving, they all have to have it in the store. The peak was 2010 — we couldn’t make it fast enough.
Wright: If we’re talking revenue: 2008, it was $4.5 million. 2009 was, like, $45 million, and 2010, we were $100, $150-something.
Josh Ostrovsky, a.k.a. The Fat Jew, Instagram personality and co-owner of Swish Beverages: I first heard about Four Loko because it was a great thing to drink if you were looking to make some memories and then immediately forget them. For me, growing up in New York in the 1990s, it was all about the 40-ounce, it was all about Mad Dog 20/20, it was all about Steel Reserve. And then, as we moved into the 2000s, the branding of Four Loko, I think, was just iconic. It popped. There were cans that were yellow and camo. It just caught your eye.
Peter Berkman, songwriter and guitarist, member of the band Anamanaguchi: I heard it first from my bandmate Ary Warnaar, who makes it his business to see what’s happening at delis and rest stops and stuff. It almost felt like liquid hyperbole. It was fucking insane on every level. Like: What’s the size? “Really, really big.” Alcohol? “Super high, probably as much as we can legally put in.” Caffeine? “As much as a Red Bull.” And flavor? “Oh, it’s got a ton of sugar, so you’re going to get super dehydrated, and it’s going to taste like you ate an entire box of Gushers.”
Callie Watts, editor, Bust magazine: We threw a lot of parties at the time, and Four Loko was the party drink, even though it smelled like cat pee. It doesn’t taste as bad as some of the other flavors of canned liquors. I would drink Four Loko instead of Crazy Horse, which is cheaper but tastes way worse. In general, Four Loko was the cheapest not-gross way to get really drunk.
Nick Catchdubs, co-founder, Fool’s Gold Records: It’s like when you get a quarter water from the deli: This flavor is not “cherry”; it’s “red.” That was my take on Four Loko. It’s not conventional fruit-based flavors. “Oh, I get a hint of pineapple.” No. This shit is “yellow.”
Ryder Ripps, conceptual artist: It’s a good rooftop drink. Or, if you’re going to someone’s house party, instead of getting a tallboy, you got a Four Loko.
Sam Johnson*, member of NYU’s class of 2011 (real name has been changed): I remember I was living in an apartment off campus when I was at NYU. I think we were all 21 at that point, or some of us were. It was the time that Jersey Shore was really big, and we would have everyone over on Thursday nights to watch Jersey Shore and drink Four Loko. It was the perfect pairing.
The Fat Jew: Drinking Four Loko was a specific experience, you know what I mean? You’d talk about it the way a girl in Brooklyn today will talk about taking ayahuasca.
Berkman: Four Loko basically gets you super, super drunk and then gives you the energy to actually act on your poor judgment. It seemed like a very special cocktail in that way.
The Fat Jew: I always felt like there was a Four Loko formula. One Four Loko meant you’d do something kind of stupid that was probably fixable in the morning. Two Four Lokos was a level that you chose to get on if you wanted to make some really questionable decisions.
Brent Rose, writer and producer: The second time I tried it was at somebody’s house party. We started playing some drinking game with Four Loko because they had a ton of cans there. That was the night I realized this stuff is pure evil. One of our friends just disappeared from the apartment and we couldn’t find her for four or five hours. We found out that she woke up on the floor of some stranger’s apartment because she apparently broke in and fell asleep on the floor. I was like, “You know what? Fuck this stuff. Fuck this stuff forever.”
Freeman: It was on every TV show, it was the butt of a lot of jokes. To me, it’s funny. You can’t pay for that stuff. You become a part of pop culture.
Wright: At the same time, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re ready for it all to go away.
In November, 2010, New York legislators — including Senator Chuck Schumer and Assemblyman Felix Ortiz — increased pressure to ban sales of Four Loko after a series of high-profile cases in which underage or young people were injured, including the death of an 18-year-old girl on Long Island and an incident during which 16 Ramapo College students were hospitalized in nearby New Jersey.
Steven W. Harris, president, New York State Beer Wholesalers Association: After a couple of news stories, it becomes a political issue and that’s why the legislature and the regulators started paying attention to this product.
Felix Ortiz, assistant speaker of the New York State Assembly, representing New York’s 51st District (Brooklyn): For me to introduce the bill to ban Four Loko from the shelves was an incident where, if I recall correctly, I believe, two young folks died from heart attacks as a consequence of combining Four Loko with some hard alcohol.
Dennis Rosen, former chairman, New York State Liquor Authority: Schumer, I know, was very concerned with the issue. I think he was talking with the FDA at the time, doing some sort of report where maybe they would come out officially and say this product is dangerous.
Wright: We played by the rules. All the products were federally and state approved.
Freeman: There’s always pushback, toward whatever new kind of disruptor’s out there, right? But caffeine and alcohol? Irish coffee has been around for hundreds of years, right? And we’re like, “Oh, are you going to ban Red Bull and vodka, too?”
Rosen: Normally, somebody has a few beers, they get a little buzzed, they know they’re getting a little high, typically, and hopefully adjust their behavior accordingly. The problem here was because of the stimulants in the beverage, it would lessen the overt effects that people would notice happening to them.
Ortiz: NBC News approached me after they read my bill, to see if I was willing to drink Four Lokos with doctor’s supervision. I spoke with my doctors, and I did it to show exactly how detrimental and dangerous this was for the health of our children. I believe I drank one or two of those Four Lokos, and my blood pressure went, in less than 15 minutes, from being normal to almost 198. I knew it was bad was when I started throwing up. I think they gave me two or three pieces of pizza, trying to bring me back again. It really, really took me out of my normal. I was not expecting that. But it did happen, so it proved my case, to continue to work harder, to ensure that we will be able to take these off the shelves.
Harris: You couldn’t ban Four Loko because it had 12 percent alcohol, and there was legitimate beer that kids weren’t drinking that had 12 percent alcohol. That’s not what any elected official wanted to hit, and that’s not what a regulator was concerned about. The focus kind of came more like the pornography definition: You know it when you see it. So we had to have conversations about what we all knew was the problem that policymakers had, and without putting a statutory definition in.
Rosen: I’m going to come at you pretty hard if I think you’re endangering people. Most of the people who were using this product or abusing this product were young. It was clearly marketed to young people. This wasn’t 55-year-old guys walking into grocery stores and walking out with a 20-something-ounce of high-potency beer.
Harris: Conference call, after conference call, after conference call, then individual calls and sidebar calls. Emailing back and forth, you know. It was like the end of session for me, but it was a November day, a 13-hour Saturday.
Rosen: This agreement came out as a result of an all-day meeting at my office on a Saturday. I remember leaving the office around, maybe seven o’clock that evening, after we spent all day in the office talking to people about trying to get this fixed. I did not want to go home that weekend knowing this issue had not been taken care of.
Freeman: There were a lot of conference calls, and a lot of information passed, but that process was very straightforward, and they did it in an efficient way.
Harris: I had to get gas that day, and I was going to go grab a soda and I noticed Four Lokos that were there. I actually bought one to have while I was having the conversation. I bought a watermelon Four Loko, just one of them. I couldn’t finish it. I was there for 13 hours and couldn’t drink it.
Rosen: You know, the beer wholesalers and distributors were making good money selling this stuff, and I tried to impress upon them the reasons for my concern. Basically we reached a voluntary agreement where they agreed to stop buying the product immediately, and then I gave them some very limited period of time in which they could sell off the product that they had in their warehouses. That was my way of not clubbing them to death on this thing and adding to their pile.
Freeman: There was mounting pressure, and that’s for us, too. That’s why we said, “Alright, you know what? Let’s take caffeine out.” It was causing a lot of this mass hysteria. I think there was a lot of misinformation about it. We knew we had consumers, employees, and we had a brand. We realized the caffeine was really blocking us from realizing our full potential as a company, so let’s just get rid of this controversy.
On November 14, 2010, the New York State Liquor Authority announced that they had come to a voluntary agreement with the manufacturers of Four Loko to stop the shipment of the malt beverage into New York state. The distributors agreed to stop selling their existing stock after December 10. Three days later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an official warning about alcoholic energy drinks. Four Loko, along with a few other brands, was singled out as containing an “unsafe food additive,” due to the high caffeine content.
Freeman: At the height of our sales, we thought we’d just be able to sell through what we had and then move on to the non-caffeinated, but the FDA decision made everyone say, “Whoa, we can’t be selling a potentially dangerous product.” Which it wasn’t. They never said it was; they said it may or may not be, but that put a cloud of doubt, so distributors and retailers were just like, “We don’t want to sell this.” That’s when you saw mass hysteria in New York.
Wright: Selling it on eBay.
Freeman: Yeah, people were buying 20 cases at the time. They were bum-rushing the bodegas — mass hysteria.
Johnson*: I remember when it was changed, so there was no caffeine any more. My friends and I would be texting each other, “Oh, my God. There’s a few left at this deli on First Avenue, we have to go buy them.”
The Fat Jew: Before, it was beautiful, questionable-decision juice. Now, they were threatening to make it almost an urban legend. Were you never going to be able to get it again? It felt like this was our drink, it was the drink of a certain age and a certain generation. You can’t take away a special part of our lives.
Miles Richards*, New Yorker who attended the University of Georgia (real name has been changed): I was a business major in undergrad, and it just seemed like the appropriate thing for a business major to practice their craft and buy a bunch of the product while you still can and sell it at a markup once they don’t have availability to it. I had my duffel bag and went to the liquor store and bought a bunch off the shelf and stacked them up.
Freeman: They had a vigil in Union Square for Four Loko. We’re sitting there like, “What the hell is going on?” It just became surreal, like a dream. Am I going to wake up?
Watts: The vigil was awesome. People, they had candles out, it was in Union Square, and they did Beatles cover songs about Four Loko.
The Fat Jew: A friend of mine, Eddie Huang, who created Fresh Off the Boat and Huang’s World, famously started stockpiling Four Loko. It had turned into Four Loko prohibition. He was hoarding it in his basement in Brooklyn, trying to get his hands on as much of it as possible, and it became something you almost had to have.
Eddie Huang, author, TV host, and restaurateur: I just got mad and started stockpiling original Four Loko when I heard they had to change the formula. I told my brother if one of us got married we would make a Four Loko fountain and serve it like Champagne at the reception. Unfortunately, neither of us got married in time, and the Four Loko’s gone bad. Who knew energy malt liquor had an expiration date?
Freeman: It happened so fast. Eddie Huang got his liquor license taken away. It was one of those wild things. The State Liquor Authority came in shut him down, and it was just because of our product. You know, you kind of feel bad. I met Eddie probably two years after that happened, and I don’t know if he’s mad at me, if he’s gonna be like, you know…
Wright: … “I lost my liquor license because of you.”
Freeman: But he was the coolest guy ever. We still text message.
Despite setbacks, the founders of Four Loko were determined to keep the business going.
Freeman: We were stuck with $30 million of inventory that was in the warehouse that couldn’t be sold. We didn’t have $30 million. We made a little bit of money but not $30 million. It took us about three or four years to recover from that, and then on top of that, we had a whole bunch of lawsuits filed against us.
Wright: We lost 80,000 points of distribution overnight. So in order to get that back, it’s difficult and it also takes time and a lot of energy and some of the retailers you need to, you know, make them comfortable with the changes that we made to the product.
Freeman: It was a very very long and tedious process. It was probably 2013 or 2014 when we got back to where we were in 2010, financially, and you know, since then we’ve kind of been on a good pace.
Wright: Internationally our business is booming. Four Loko is that iconic edgy American brand. A lot of people come to the United States, they go to school and then they go back and are looking for Four Loko. So whether it’s South America, Mexico, China.
The Fat Jew: There was a thing in China. Kids were would livestream themselves from their houses drinking Four Loko until they basically fell asleep, like, on camera. It was like two weeks. They sold millions of fucking cans of Four Loko because all these Asian kids were doing this livestream Four Loko challenge.
Freeman: We were shipping a couple containers in 2015 to China, and then overnight, in mid-2016, the market just exploded and people were purchasing full containers and air-shipping them back to China, which is like $30,000. We were doing 100,000 cases a month to China, export.
Rosen: I feel the argument can certainly be made that our efforts to address a major concern at the time — the inclusion of caffeine and stimulants in high-alcohol-content beverages — have been successful, in that such combinations are essentially not available for legal purchase today.
Berkman: We actually still have Four Loko on our rider, when we play shows, so they’ll have it backstage. Sometimes they actually do follow through and buy it, but I don’t think we ever actually drank it. The comic appeal gets lost when it’s just alcohol.
Watts: Now it’s just like any other fruity malt liquor. It’s doesn’t really have the same, authentic fucked-up-ness as it did before.