For several weeks last fall, news readers would have been hard-pressed to go more than a day without seeing an article about the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko and whatever new social ill was being linked to it. But throughout all the coverage of the rise and fall of caffeinated booze, there was one constant: The founders of Phusion Projects, the company behind Four Loko, were always silent . . . until now.
The Four Loko story is a classic tale of young entrepreneurs finding a controversial niche market with which to make an ass-load of money.
After college, the three bros (each looking like more of a meathead stereotype than the last), decided that selling Red Bull & vodkas and Jager Bombs to people like themselves was a potential gold mine.
Sparks, the nation's first caffeinated malt beverage, was already big, but besides that, the field was wide open.
Jeff Wright, Jaisen Freeman, and Chris Hunter created the drink that crunked the nation.
The bro trio had an opening for a big product, but what to call it?
Like Sparks, the drink would capitalize on the nationwide mania for energy drinks, driven by Red Bull and a flurry of new competitors--a business then worth an estimated $2.5 billion. They agreed on a name--the new drink would be simply called Four--and on a concept, adding a fourth ingredient to the Sparks recipe. Along with taurine, guarana, and caffeine, their new drink would also contain wormwood--the supposed psychoactive ingredient in absinthe, which was just making a comeback on the American market. While these "energy beers" were already coming under attack for targeting entry-level drinkers, Four's founders were undaunted. Where public health advocates saw trouble, Hunter, Freeman, and Wright saw a potential goldmine. "We couldn't go wrong with this thing," Freeman recalls. "This was our billion-dollar idea."
The friends' "billion-dollar idea" got off to a pretty bad start. The namesaked fourth ingredient--wormwood--was a flop, with no one knowing what the hell it was. Plus the beverage contained a scant 6 percent alcohol, which was turning the heads of absolutely no one.
What they needed was a stronger swill.
So after a few other incarnations, the bros finally came up with Four Loko--the "Loko" part deriving from the idea that it was fruit-punch flavored, so it was a "Loko" blend of tastes. The booze content was bumped up to 12 percent, the wormwood was gone, and the caffeine equaled about two cans of Red Bull.
The drink started selling faster than they could say "alcohol poisoning."
"[We were up] thousands of percentages per month," says Freeman. "You can't forecast that kind of thing. On top of that there was an aluminum shortage for cans. It was suddenly, boom, and everybody was out of stock. We could never even fathom this much demand for our product."
Eventually, however, came the beginning of the end. And it started right here in Washington when a gaggle of CWU freshmen got obliterated on Four Loko and had to be briefly hospitalized.
The mixture of attractive white college kids and a new controversial booze drink proved too much for the American media, and soon the Internet and TV were awash in articles about how the drink, soon nicknamed "liquid cocaine," was the scourge of the nation. Statewide bans soon followed, and a federal ban on caffeinated alcohol drinks came not long afterward.
But through it all, Phusion Projects remained relatively unchanged. The top dudes say they haven't laid off a single employee since the dust-up, and after deciding simply to cut the caffeine out of Four Loko and continue selling it, as opposed to taking their significant earnings and walking away, the company appears to be on the rebound.
Freeman, Wright, and Hunter say that decaf Four drinks are selling quite well thanks to the brand's notorious name recognition, and they apparently have some other beverages lined up for debut soon.
Meanwhile, the old, caffeinated version of Four Loko is nothing short of a cult phenomenon. When people sell empty cans of the stuff as collectors' items on eBay, it's obvious that the drink has become part of the booze history of America.