The debauched and beguiling world of underground alcohol is largely unchartered. From powdered alcohol to Phrosties to Oakland's summer cooler, trends rise and fall at a staggering rate and, at the end of the day, little if any of it is preserved and celebrated in the way traditional cocktails are.
Enter energy drink evangelist Steph Russ. The artist-turned-publicist-turned-mixologist is on the forefront of capturing and embracing the experimental energy drink cocktail counterculture that exploded with the FDA's 2010 crackdown on Four Loko.
Hell, her new recipe book—Energy: Cocktails to Get You UP—is a veritable ode to the depraved DIY-culture of energy-laced alcohol. Plus, the book requires some crazy cocktail ingredients like placenta, breast milk, Adderall, antacid tablets, cough syrup, tabs of acid, poppers, and a delicate garnish of Pepto-Bismol, to name just a few.
Will Russ and her inspired book bring about an energy drink cocktail revolution or will such drinks forevermore be relegated to the goblets of degenerates and dorm-dwellers alike? I decided to sit down with Steph to get to the bottom of both her calling and the plight of the energy drink cocktail.
MUNCHIES: So how did you come up with the concept for your book? It seems to perfectly capture this crazy moment in cocktail culture, which really hasn't been documented or embraced in the way that it should be. Steph Russ: For me, I was really into Four Loko and all of the ready-made energy drinks when they came out. I was in college so I was already of the age when you're probably going to be experimenting with stuff like that. The book came about just as a way to still have that Four Loko feeling, once they took out the stimulants. My friends and I would make a bunch of recipes up before we'd go out—just for laughs. To chase that Four Loko feeling.
What do you think it is about Four Loko that was so special? Is it just that it was so damn cheap? Or is Loko emblematic of a larger scene? Yeah, to be honest, for us, it was cheap. And it was strong. It was the most effective product that you could get for that amount of money. And that's valuable to a college kid, or anyone that's not rolling in dough. I also think Energy is a rebellion against mixology that I find to be inaccessible because there's not a lot of people who can afford to frequently enjoy $15 craft cocktails. It's not about spending money—it's about the effects.
You have some really fucking far-out-there recipes in the book. They all seem to tell a story or capture a moment. How did you go about creating them? Yeah, I kind of went pedal to the metal. There's a ton in the book and there's a ton that aren't even in there. I just make them up all the time. And I do a lot of events. So I'll have different menus for each event and some are in the book and some aren't. But for each drink I'll think of a situation, a type of party or person who is trying to party—what would they need in that situation?
How hit and miss are your cocktails? How often is something you dream up spot-on and how often are you like, "That's so disgusting, no one's going to drink that"? [Laughs] Some time they're too disgusting, but often—well, I wouldn't put it in the book if I thought it was too disgusting. Although there are some I haven't actually tried. There're a couple that are just for laughs.
How many of the cocktails have you actually tried? I've tried almost all of them. There are a few that are purely satirical, purely for a situation that I haven't found myself in. Who knows? Maybe one day if I ever am a new mother, I'll want to drink my placenta in a sangria. But I haven't tried that yet. A lot of people when they hear the ingredients, they think, That's disgusting! Did you really just put breast milk in that cocktail? But when you try them, they really taste good. You experiment at home with your friends and sometimes you pour some cough syrup in the liquor and think, That was not a good idea. But sometimes, you're like, I'm on to something. There's a few that I don't really like, but other people like—like the Reptilian Scotch. It's not for me. It tastes like gasoline—I have not acquired that taste yet, but some people have.
How about the drinks in Energy with Adderall in them? The drinks containing Adderall, yes, I've tried those. [Laughs.] And yes, it was fun.
Have all the bar owners or employers you've worked for always been on board with these kinds of drinks or did you have to experiment in your own spare time? When I work in bars, I don't push it as far as I do in my book or in my personal experiments. For legal reasons, obviously. From working in bars, I got the knowledge of traditional cocktails and traditional mixology. And that's why the recipes in the book do have a background in classic cocktails. They're just accelerated. More for a pre-game setting or a warehouse party setting—a more DIY situation. The School Nurse is just a variation on a Negroni. The Granddaddy is a take on the Old Fashioned.
I know you have a performance art and music background. Does that factor into your bartending? Did the storytelling and showmanship aspect of bartending draw you in? It's a multi-faceted draw. What mostly drew me in first was that I was a participant and I guess you've got to create what you want to see. So if no one's going to make cocktails that are fun and playful enough to drink on my own, then I'm gonna do it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your "come down" cocktail book you're starting to write? A lot of people say to me, "I'm already a maniac. What can I drink that will help me chill?" Or, "I can't be all energy all the time." And I feel that way too—I mean, I'm not on uppers 24/7. For me, it's like a special occasion kind of thing. I've been experimenting with things like kava kava, valerian root, and teas. For that book, I want it to be similar to Energy in that each drink is a time capsule of a certain type of party. What would you ideally drink in that situation? There'll be nightcaps.
The photos in your book blew me away. You really went out of your way to tell a story. Did your art background play into that? Pete [Deevakul, the photographer] is so good at what he does. For me, the visuals were really crucial. That was a part of my whole vision for the book—this is what I wanted it to look like. I wanted it to feel like a classic cookbook, but just twisted, more forward-thinking, more extreme. Accelerated. Each drink has its own theme and concept, so the photos need to play a part in that world
Have you felt any backlash—like from publishers or the manufacturers of the products you use? You posted on your Instagram that Urban Outfitters refused to sell the book. Yeah, some people are scared to be associated. I think a lot of it is legal fears. Because Four Loko was regulated, who is gonna stand up and advocate for ingesting those type of substances? They're scared and I get it. But I still think it's an idea worth exploring and sharing. There are people who are like, hey Steph, under the table, we love this idea, we want to party in that way. But just don't tell anyone we said that [laughs]. I mean, the book is about mixology for true party people. It's about cheap, accessible fun.
Thanks for speaking with us, Steph.