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The Summer of Loko
"imagine one step below bath salts and everyone under 33 being on it"
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The other day I got a text from my pal Katie Way, the brain-genius behind the indispensable newsletter All Cops Are Posters. Friends of Fingers will remember Katie as my collaborator on this newsletter about the breathtaking array of Blue Lives Matter drinking schlock available for purchase on Etsy. Katie is a staff writer at Vice, and she was working on a story—since published—about reverse-engineering Four Loko, the cult-status malt liquor/energy drink that was forced off shelves by government regulators a decade ago.
As Katie lamented in her delightful blog, she was in 10th grade during Four Loko’s heyday, and missed out on “tak[ing] the full brunt of the original Four Loko craze directly to the forehead.” So she asked me to weigh in on the beverage’s cultural significance during the electrifying 2008-2010 epoch, after it had reached ubiquity amongst the most reckless sectors of the American drinking public but before the FDA put the kibosh on its caffeinated formula. (You can still buy Four Loko today, san caffeine. The brand even has a “bartender series,” which I do not understand but am nevertheless alarmed by.)
I wrote Katie a miniature essay about Four Loko’s glorious moment—the “Summer of Loko,” as FoF Foster Kamer recently coined this period on Twitter. She was gracious enough to include a few selections from it. Below, I’ve published the entirety of what I texted to her (plus a bit more!), for your reading pleasure. And because pictures of Four Loko are worth a thousand words about Four Loko, I’ve also included some party pics from the pre-ban era, sourced from the Creative Commons & public Facebook groups.1 Enjoy.
The Summer of Loko
The year is 2010. Obama is two years in and about to get clowned by the Tea Party. In the next few months, “Airplanes" by B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams is poised to receive 3.2 bajillion minutes of play on your iTunes account alone. Vaping is in its fringe-y, pre-Juul phase, and Big Tobacco still hasn't totally given up on capturing America's lungs of tomorrow with innovative new combustibles, so if you frequent the right (read: wrong) bars, you might score a few promo packs of Camel Crush, those cigarettes that allow you to downshift from regular to menthol from one drag to the next.
Enter Four Loko, which hit the barely legal drinking scene (and the underage one, too, to be clear) like an absolute freight train at the turn of the last decade. (Technically it arrived on store shelves in 2005, the brainchild of a bunch of Ohio Statefrat heads on a quest for the "energy beer" grail, but it didn't achieve national distribution for another few years.)
With fruity flavors, an inscrutable name, and enough caffeine to fire up even the poopiest of party-poopers, it was THE drink of twenty-something "heavy users" during this heady era. And make no mistake, this was THE era for heavy-using twenty-somethings, too. Conditions were optimal, especially considering the wall between “real life” and online was still mostly intact.
Consider: in 2009, two years after the iPhone’s debut, just 12.8% of Americans owned a smartphone. YouTube was four years old, Twitter was three years old, Instagram was a year away from being born. It was entirely common for people bring their many-hued Canon PowerShots to parties, then literally upload the photos they took, one by one, to Facebook albums days after the fact. Having your IRL drunken antics instantly livestreamed to the world in full HD was still a mostly incomprehensible future for your average shithead. (Hell, the term “IRL” itself was only entered into the Online Slang Dictionary, an Urban Dictionary precursor, in 2005.) This was a glorious liminal moment, and in it, the relative anonymity of the less-online past collided headlong with a high-gravity beverage of the future.
The thing I remember the most about Four Loko, besides how quickly got drinkers drunk and addled, was that it fit in pretty well with my lifestyle in 2010. It was a happy coincidence that in hindsight also functions as an enormous indictment of my lifestyle.
To wit: in college I was a big proponent of alcohol/energy precursors like Sparks and Tilt, both of which were eventually pulled from shelves under pressure from regulators. With the departure of Sparks went the DIY delight of Sporties, in which you drank half a 40oz bottle of Olde English 800 then filled it with Sparks for a sweet, high-octane malt cocktail. But if Sporties were Brass Monkeys for Generation Ritalin, Four Loko—and Joose, and the other various chaos-in-a-can copycats that flocked to market a dozen years ago—were all-in-one obliterative godsend for the Adderall set.2
I spent scores of Saturday afternoons planted on my buddy’s couch watching TiVo’d episodes of Nitro Circus, drinking Mickey’s grenades with the Rebus riddles on the caps, and considering whether (or, more realistically, when) to crack a Four Loko for the night to come. And even once the original-formula stuff was pulled from the shelves, for most of my early twenties, I was regularly drinking those little 5 Hour Energy shooters before going out for the evening. Appalling!
To me, Four Loko was just an extension of these two ideas, a glorious, live-wire mash-up (lol remember mash-ups? Girl Talk? Anyone?) of saccharine, intoxicating form and unrelenting chemical function. I don't miss it, in the same way I don't miss being a 22 year-old dipshit generally, but for a time, Four Loko burned as brightly in the American drinking public's collective conscious as it burned acidly through their collective stomach linings. Or at least, in mine.
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And finally, a good, correct tweet about the two stages of Four Loko consumption
Thank you to FoF Jenna for sending me this, it’s truly a delight.
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I’ve obscured the faces of people in these photos, and I’m not linking to where I found them because even though this stuff is publicly available it just doesn’t seem necessary to out anyone here. Also, maybe this is morbid, but there’s a good chance at least one of these people is dead now, and I just simply don’t feel prepared for the metaphysical consequences of trampling the reputations of the deceased with old Four Loko photos.
I know the distinction between which ADHD medications people were abusing at the time probably seems semantic if you weren’t there, but during this period I swear there was a dramatic shift from Ritalin to Adderall as the prescription drug of choice for all-nighter pullers and party-prolongers alike. Does anyone else remember this? Somebody? Dad?