Collage by Katie Way
As public life reopens (semi… safely) and the siren song of an almost-normal summertime throbs in our ears, I urge you to stick your head out of the nearest window and take in a deep whiff of crisp spring air. What do you smell? That’s right: Chaos. And what’s the perfect beverage pairing for quasi-safe, quasi-legal, deeply hedonistic, “Oh shit, what happened to my teeth” fun? Why, a nectar so powerful the government had to ban it: the original formula Four Loko.
Even the brands have picked up on what our collective psyche is putting down: on Tuesday, White Claw announced its new line of 8 percent ABV seltzers, with bigger cans (haha) to match the 3 percent increase in booze content. But let’s be honest: White Claw is to OG Four Loko what a CBD latte is to a bong rip. OG Loko can’t be resurrected by any beverage company operating within the confines of the law. That’s why VICE sent me down a rabbit hole on a quest to capture the original high of the original formula Four Loko.To be totally transparent, I was born in the wrong generation: I should be 31 right now, because if I was, I would have taken the full brunt of the original Four Loko craze directly to the forehead. Unfortunately, I was in tenth grade in November 2010, when the FDA banned alcoholic energy drinks. So, while nobody reading this has had an OG Four Loko in over a decade, my memory isn’t the sharpest—I was probably worrying about how to get a good PSAT score or some bullshit like that when I was tentatively sipping a lukewarm watermelon flav Loko in a Safeway parking lot. (To be honest, if OG Loko existed when I was finished with puberty, I’d probably be a very different person—someone, at least, who’d gotten her stomach pumped during college.)
In order to get a better understanding of what, exactly, I should strive for, I talked to my friend Dave Infante, a writer-at-large for VinePair and the mind behind Fingers, a newsletter about drinking culture. “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,” Infante told VICE. “To me, Four Loko was just an extension of these two ideas, a glorious, live-wire mash-up (remember mash-ups? Girl Talk? Anyone?) of saccharine, intoxicating form and unrelenting chemical function.”In essence, the original Four Loko as a drink and a phenomenon was about getting Amped and staying Amped. “The thing I remember the most about Four Loko, besides how quickly it got drinkers drunk and addled, was that it fit in pretty well with my lifestyle in 2010,” Infante said. “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 consciousness as it burned acidly through their collective stomach linings. Or at least, in mine.”Before we begin, let me be perfectly clear: this was not a scientific experiment. We were not looking to replicate the actual composition of Four Loko so much as the vibe of Four Loko—the taste, the sensation, and the aftermath. We were also working from a selection of ingredients best classified as “easy to buy from the store on my lunch break,” meaning no fancy powders or research chemicals came into play here—for information on that front, see this more chemically accurate recipe from Gizmodo. Also, if you’re going to try this at home and you’re really looking to get rowdy, I’d recommend bringing more clear liquor into the picture. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure I can in good conscience “recommend” “trying this” “at home.”
With frenetic 22-year-old energy as my lodestar, I set out to mess with my body several workdays in a row—in the name of content, sure, but more importantly in the name of chaos.
I went into Faux Loko number one bright-eyed and well-rested, with a sense of optimism about the entire experience. No, I hadn’t consumed a 5 Hour Energy since my time as a college student desperate to finish a week of reading in a two-hour span. Yes, I’d developed a distinct aversion to Lime-A-Ritas since a very fateful St. Patrick’s Day weekend. But what, I thought, was the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, my hubris bit me in the ass almost at sip one. The 5 Hour energy (citrus, as if that would make a difference) rendered the ‘Rita both sweeter and stickier than usual. It became immediately clear that this was Too Much Energy to experience in the evening. I had made two fateful mistakes: Cracking open my hideous concoction at the end of the workday (approximately 5:37 in the afternoon) and doing so after consuming a large iced coffee mere hours before.Per my notes: “Oh my god!!! I can’t tell if this is psychological or placebo or whatever but I definitely [have] a slight tremor in my hands.” My typing grew frantic, animated by that surge-of-stimulation feeling I can only describe as “hacking the mainframe.” Halfway through the can, I became slightly concerned about my pulse. It was a Monday.
Faux Loko #1: Lime-A-rita Tallboy + 5 Hour Energy
I hopped on an extracurricular Zoom call around 6:30pm, Faux Loko in hand, greeted with raised eyebrows from my fellow attendees. “It’s for work,” I said. “I work for VICE,” I clarified. Doubtless, they found that extremely cool. Two hours and a few very animated conversations later, I set out to the grocery store to snag some missing ingredients for dinner—something I would normally rather eat my hand than do. Buoyed by the Faux Loko, soba noodles in hand, I cooked myself a bad dinner and watched an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with one of my very patient roommates. Getting myself to bed was an ordeal. I wasn’t drunk, but I was definitely wired. I finally fell asleep around 12:45am, woke up three times throughout the night, and entered the next day very tired. My pulse concerns persisted at bedtime, and I had to put a t-shirt over my head to get myself to simmer down, like when you put a little hat on a trained hawk. Overall, a 3 out of 4 Loko experience, especially for a work night.
This one sucked. Per my notes, I “hated this and it pissed me off” because “I think I’m allergic to Bang Energy or there’s just something about it that is fundamentally incompatible with my DNA.” I combined one murky bottle of Original Flavor Smirnoff Ice (I’ve got five left if anyone wants one!) with about half of a can of “Star Blast” flavored Bang Energy, boosted by whatever “super creatine” is. My chief complaint was that Smirnoff Ice’s 5 percent ABV, plus its relatively small volume, was not enough to get me drunk whatsoever—nowhere close to the 12 ABV that made the OG Loko special. It probably didn’t help that I was still sleepy, cranky, and nervous—I’d foregone coffee to make sure this Faux Loko couldn’t snatch away my REM cycle for the second night in a row.
Faux Loko #2: Bang Energy + Smirnoff Ice
I downed this combination at around 5:00pm—we love a little bev on the clock—and almost immediately, it made me headache-y and extremely irritable. It tasted like a McDonald’s Sprite threw up in my mouth. I spent the rest of the evening kind of nauseous, a little more aggravated than usual, but otherwise basically “normal.” Boo. Hiss. Negative 1 out of 4 Lokos. I hope with all of my heart that Smirnoff Ice never enters my system again, but I can’t make any promises.
In the middle of my experiment, I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was a twofold blessing: One, I’m on my way to protection from the virus that shut down the world for the past year and change. Two, I got to take a break from the Faux Lokos. On Saturday evening, when any symptoms were fully dissipated, I resumed my task. This Faux Loko was special because I consumed it before one of my first actual social events of the season: a friend’s birthday dinner. Finally, a social outlet for this social experimentation! True to the spirit of the Loko, I chugged this drink while hastily getting ready for an event I was already late to. The lightly carbonated fruit punch soda turned the whole drink, which also contained three shots of vodka and a Red Bull Sugarfree, a vivid, Kool-Aid red. The coloring added a playful element of danger because I was wearing white jeans.
Faux Loko #3: Red Bull + Vodka + Welch’s fruit punch soda
This one was, to be honest, pretty good. A vodka Red Bull is not “my drink” in the best of times, but at least other people had experimented with the form previously. Ultimately, I added another shot in the interest of pushing myself. This beverage was much less alien than its forebears in that I think another human being might potentially drink it. I kind of wanted a second one, but the ticking clock saved me from myself. Instead, I redid my French braids on the subway while a couple of women pretended they weren’t looking at me. They turned out even better than they’d been when I was home, looking in the mirror. 2.5 out of 4 Lokos. Not enough chaos. I was getting a little too comfortable.
Another Tuesday, another Faux Loko. This time, however, I was working with more constraints than ever before, thanks to a 4:30pm dentist appointment. At 2pm, I mixed peach lemonade-flavored pre-workout powder, handed off to me in a not-at-all suspicious baggy by our resident Swole Woman, with a mango White Claw tallboy for immediate, overwhelming Flintstones vitamin vibes. Actually, immediate isn’t quite the right word—because when I was initially sipping this Faux Loko, thinking to myself how much the pre-workout didn’t affect the White Claw flavor, I made a chilling discovery: the powder had congealed at the top of the can, and I had to stick a spoon in to mix it myself. The resulting flavor gelled most with how I remember the original Four Loko tasted: like if fruit was made out of edible metal. This Faux Loko also replicated the feeling I was chasing best. Maybe it was just the fact that I was buzzed in the middle of the workday (I can see why everyone working in the Mad Men-era was so into the “business lunch”), but this combination left me feeling flirty and floaty and pepped me up enough to be actively excited about getting my teeth cleaned. I’d definitely try it again with the White Claw Surge I talked smack about above—if I was getting paid to do so.Ultimately, this Faux Loko gave me the kind of blind confidence that a chaotic mixed drink should. As I walked towards my dentist office, I spotted a taco shop with to-go margaritas and nodded smugly to myself—I knew what I’d be up to after I left Dr. Quartey’s chair. But in case anyone needed more proof that the quest for the original Four Loko is the quest for a fleeting, bygone era, by the time I exited my dentist appointment, the impulse had passed. I simply got back on the train, Slacked my team to see if I could wrap up any stories on the commute, and headed home. 4 out of 4 Lokos.Follow Katie Way on Twitter.