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Four Loko, Joose, and Sparks: An abridged history of caffeinated alcohol

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Remembrances of Four Loko — the super-caffeinated, alcoholic energy drink available in every convenience store for a narrow window of time before FDA intervention at the end of the aughts — are their own genre of internet content.

It is, if there is such a thing, the internet’s beverage, even years after the demise of its original formula. “If you can remember your Four Loko experiences, it wasn’t a Four Loko experience,” comedian Kady Ruth recently tweeted, in response to a question from comedian Akilah Hughes, asking for stories about the drink’s golden age. “Why tell, when you can show a photo series?” dancer and YouTuber Ava Gordy replied, attaching an image of herself surrounded by Four Loko cans and wearing a gas mask. Photos from Four Loko’s golden days are scattered around on Tumblr and Imgur, captured with the high-flash, red-eyed weirdness of disposable cameras and early iPhones.

In an oral history of Four Loko, published on Grub Street last summer, the team of Ohio State buddies who created it explained how the product went from a small production run in 2005 to a splashy New York City debut in 2009 to over $100 million in revenue in 2010. In short: They made the cans tall and they gave them a neon camouflage print to make them stand out. Plus they raised the alcohol level as high as they legally could for a malt beverage.

2010 sounds like such a long time ago that I was honestly surprised when one of the Gawker pieces about the moment mentioned the fact that Obama was president. I wasn’t old enough to drink or permitted to have more than one other person in my car at the time, but even I feel a bubbly sort of weakness in my chest reading a blog post about the founder of Ron Jon Surf Shops getting arrested for driving under the influence of Four Loko or a blog post about Chuck Schumer comparing Four Loko to “a plague” devastating the country .

Four Loko was beloved, and it is beloved in death. But why? What’s so great about caffeinated sugar-water full of booze, in a can, retailing for $2.50, other than the obvious? The drink is infamous, and maybe an important cultural moment, but it’s not unique. There were also micro-eras for nearly identical drinks Sparks and Joose, and the vodka Red Bull got almost two decades. In fact, there’s a long history of people trying to showily ruin their nights or their lives with disgusting combinations of chemicals dreamt up for some business purpose that doesn’t especially concern them. Caffeine and alcohol shouldn’t mix, but they have always mixed.


“People are always looking for a way to get high,” William Rorabaug, a historian at the University of Washington tells me. “Throughout history. It seems to be part of the human condition.”

The last super-boozy generation was the baby boomers, he explains, but their children got into a health kick — yoga, meditation, bicycles, running — mostly because they saw a lot of bad stuff happen to their parents and older siblings as a result of alcohol, and because they preferred marijuana. Mothers Against Drunk Driving got big in the 1980s, and heavy alcohol consumption dipped throughout the 1990s. It didn’t rise again until about 2003, he says, when “very sweet mixed drinks” that went down easy and would fuck you up with sugar and alcohol at the time became more popular.

Philip Dobard, vice president of the National Food and Beverage Foundation, explains to me that the drinking age was lower when he was a teenager, which was in the 1970s, and that he really liked drinking Long Island Iced Teas. Though they’ve been rebranded as premium cocktails in recent years, Long Island Iced Teas used to be Diet Coke and the leftover dregs of various well spirits. “It was the vodka Red Bull of its day,” he reminisces. “It was high alcohol, not particularly high caffeine, but caffeine. It was a test of one’s humanity. A test of one’s mortality. You’re young and healthy and you’re not familiar with loss. Injuries, when they occur, quickly heal.”

A current CDC fact sheet about mixing caffeine and alcohol states that it makes drinkers feel too alert (when they should feel sleepy and want to stop drinking or at least sit down and not risk “alcohol-attributable harms”). It also points out that “caffeine has no effect on the metabolism of alcohol by the liver … (it does not ‘sober you up’) or reduce impairment due to alcohol consumption,” and some studies have found people who mix caffeine and alcohol are three times more likely to leave a bar while still heavily intoxicated and four time more likely to attempt to drive home.

But caffeinated alcohol and the type of high it provides is communal, Dobard notes. It’s almost charming, to want to strip yourself of inhibitions in the presence of people you like. “I don’t think that impulse is new,” Dobard adds. “I think the commercial forces are new.”

He’s right. The vodka Red Bull was invented in the late ’90s by none other than … Red Bull, which chased athletes in ski towns and the rave scene on the West Coast by giving cases of free energy drinks to bartenders, even paying them thousands of dollars to put it on the menu. The first mainstream alcohol and fortified caffeine beverage was an industry plant.

As Haley Hamilton noted in MEL’s recent oral history of the vodka Red Bull, combining alcohol with caffeine has a two-part effect: “The alcohol can dull the effects of the caffeine (boring), or more problematically, the caffeine can dull the effects of the alcohol, meaning you can drink way more than you normally would without feeling super-hammered.” Dobard is not personally familiar with Four Loko, but sympathizes with the plight of a generation that just wants to get as drunk as everyone else got to.

“There’s nothing inherently illicit about combining caffeine and alcohol,” Dobard points out, adding that coffee liqueurs and coffee-based cocktails have been around for hundreds of years, commonly used as post-dinner digestifs. “The problem occurs when there’s so much of one or the other and it’s so available that it becomes easily and widely abused as a substance. That’s typically when government agencies step in and recognize it as a public health risk.”

(In 2010, the New York Times offered the following, very funny, very ahistoric thought on the demand for Four Loko: “It has long vexed club-hoppers and partygoers: how do you stay awake while drinking alcohol late into the night? For years, alcohol and soda sufficed.” Imagine if we’d just cool-mom-blind-eyed everyone for choosing to drink gas station cocktails instead of doing cocaine!)


Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan commented on the persecution of Four Loko in 2010, writing that it was part of a “full-blown scapegoating operation,” and pointing out the obvious: “Isn’t the real issue here that kids are stupid?”

That’s a fair question. Budweiser’s alcohol-and-caffeine drink BE was a hit in the United States in the early- to mid-aughts but flopped immediately when tested overseas in 2006. Caffeinated alcohol is a distinctly American flavor of stupid. We do it over and over.

A can of Joose, which is 23.5 ounces, contains approximately 380 calories. (Compared to modern Four Loko, which is 660). While both had 12 percent alcohol by volume and were fortified with caffeine, Joose had a few differentiating features, beyond the fact it was 40 cents cheaper and covered in skulls.

Sparks actually preceded both, and MillerCoors voluntarily removed the caffeine in 2008, before Four Loko even hit its stride. In the two years between its $215 million acquisition from the McKenzie River Corporation and this quiet surrender, Sparks had a 90 percent share of the “alcopop” market, which meant that, with its death, Four Loko was primed to become an easy hit.

Today, even in the midst of the “wellness” boom, young people still post exuberantly about knocking back cans of Four Loko and making bad decisions, even though the caffeine has been removed and the current drink is no more dangerous than a wine cooler. In June 2016, long after Four Loko had been rereleased sans caffeine, the strange college journalism platform Odyssey Online published a guide to matching Four Loko flavors with your personality. “Gold Loko is a VERY IMPORTANT new flavor,” the possibly underage author wrote. “The people who drink these LOVE to live on the edge. They aren’t afraid of the challenge (of the added 2 percent alcohol volume).”

But it’s not special. None of it is special. I was a straitlaced high school soccer player during the Four Loko years, but I do remember, with a warm sort of disgust, the acrid taste of college ingenuity — tequila and blue Gatorade, whiskey and strawberry-kiwi Snapple, etc. There was no reason we couldn’t have chosen slightly less revolting combinations, except for the fact that it was kind of romantic not to. In 20 years, are you going to post throwback pics of a rum and Coke? It’s not shorthand for anything, and you would probably drink one now.


In November 2010, one of Four Loko’s creators, Chris Hunter, defended the drink vehemently to Fast Company, arguing that it had the same amount of caffeine as a Starbucks coffee, less alcohol than most craft beers, less seductive packaging than a Bud Light Lime, and that dozens of other alcoholic beverages were available in the same 24-ounce cans. Asked about a widely publicized incident at Washington State University in which nine college students ended up hospitalized, with Four Loko cited throughout the police report, Hunter got even more defensive, telling reporter Austin Carr, “The police report showed there was supposedly illegal drugs at the party. That was mentioned about 14 times in the police report. There were multiple mentions of hard liquor, but there were only a few, maybe 2 to 3, mentions of Four Loko. It’s really unfair to say our drink was the cause of this.”

The same month, his company reached a voluntary agreement with the New York State Liquor Authority to stop shipping Four Loko into the state and the US Food and Drug Administration issued a public warning about caffeine as an “unsafe additive” to alcoholic beverages, as well as private letters to four different manufacturers — including Four Loko’s Phusion Projects — that stated, “[The] FDA is not aware of any publicly available data to establish affirmatively safe conditions of use for caffeine added directly to alcoholic beverages and packaged in a combined form.”

The FDA’s letter was sent to Charge Beverages Corporation (which made drinks called Core High Gravity HG Green and Core High Gravity HG Orange), New Century Brewing Company (which made the fortified beer Moonshot), and United Brands, which made Joose.

Jonathan Howland, a community health researcher at Boston University, told Science Daily just after the ban on Four Loko, “Although several manufacturers of caffeinated beer have withdrawn their products from the market, there is no sign that young people have decreased the practice of combining alcohol and energy drinks.”

There have been other gross party beverages meant to recapture the thrill of alcoholic energy drinks without drawing the same unwanted attention. Whipped Lightning, a combination of sugar, heavy cream, grain alcohol, and artificial flavoring had a brief heyday. Forty-proof chocolate milk did not quite. The super-cheap bottled sangria brand Capriccio had a moment, which the company leaned into, saying, “Believe the hype!” MEL’s Miles Klee recently sampled every flavor of a Mark Cuban-endorsed juice-box wine cooler called BeatBox, which has hideous, brightly-colored marketing materials and a low price point, but concluded that its 11.1 percent alcohol content wasn’t really enough for anything other than an “unremarkable, if quietly pleasant weekend.”

In fact, even the FDA seems to be over the whole incident. When asked whether it would involve itself in the rise of alcohol-infused cold brew — such as those offered by California-based Cafe Agave or the forthcoming offering from Skyy Vodka, announced March 15 — a spokesperson said the agency only considers products on a case-by-case basis, when action seems called for, and would have to get back to me.

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Look at How Much “Game of Thrones” Characters Have Changed Over 8 Seasons

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During the summer of 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones aired. The show had gone on for almost 10 years which is a long time not only for the characters but also for the actors who portrayed them.

Bright Side is remembering what characters looked like in the very first episodes of the groundbreaking series and is comparing them to what they look like in the final season of the show.

1. Cersei Lannister

2. Jon Snow

3. Tyrion Lannister

4. Daenerys Targaryen

5. Sansa Stark

6. Arya Stark

7. Jorah Mormont

8. Varys

9. Jaime Lannister

10. Sandor Clegane

11. Brienne of Tarth

12. Samwell Tarly

13. Davos Seaworth

14. Theon Greyjoy

15. Brandon Stark

Did you watch Game of Thrones? Did you enjoy season 8? Tell us in the comment section below.

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Baltimore’s ransomware attack, explained – Vox

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Thirteen bitcoins are standing between the city of Baltimore and many of the services and processes its citizens rely on after hackers seized thousands of government computers at the start of the month. The ordeal has been going on for two weeks, and there’s no clear end in sight.

Here’s what’s happening: On May 7, hackers digitally seized about 10,000 Baltimore government computers and demanded around $100,000 worth in bitcoins to free them back up. It’s a so-called “ransomware” attack, where hackers deploy malicious software to block access to or take over a computer system until the owner of that system pays a ransom.

Baltimore, like several other cities that have been hit by such attacks over the past two years, is refusing to pay up. As a result, for two weeks, city employees have been locked out of their email accounts and citizens have been unable to access essential services, including websites where they pay their water bills, property taxes, and parking tickets. This is Baltimore’s second ransomware attack in about 15 months: Last year, a separate attack shut down the city’s 911 system for about a day. Baltimore has come under scrutiny for its handling of both attacks.

The ransomware attacks in Baltimore and other local governments across the US demonstrate that as ransomware attacks spread, and as common targets such as hospitals and schools beef up their online systems’ security, there are still plenty targets vulnerable to this kind of hack. It also exemplifies the conundrum that ransomware victims face: pay up and get your access back, or refuse — potentially costing much more in the long run.

What’s going on in Baltimore, briefly explained

Hackers targeted the city of Baltimore on May 7 using a ransomware called RobbinHood, which, as NPR explains, makes it impossible to access a server without a digital key that only the hackers have.

The Baltimore hackers’ ransom note, obtained by the Baltimore Sun, demanded payment of three bitcoins per system to be unlocked, which amounts to 13 bitcoins to unlock all the seized systems. The note threatened to increase the ransom if it wasn’t paid in four days, and said the information would be lost forever if it wasn’t paid in 10 days. Both deadlines have now passed.

“We won’t talk more, all we know is MONEY! Hurry up! Tik Tak, Tik Tak, Tik Tak!” the note said.

The city government is refusing to pay, meaning that the government email systems and payment platforms the attack took down remain offline. The attack has also harmed Baltimore’s property market, because officials weren’t able to access systems needed to complete real estate sales. (The city said transactions resumed on Monday.)

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, who’s officially been in his office less than a month, said in a statement on Friday that city officials are “well into the restorative process” and have “engaged leading industry cybersecurity experts who are on-site 24-7 working with us.” The FBI is also involved in the investigation.

“Some of the restoration efforts also require that we rebuild certain systems to make sure that when we restore business functions, we are doing so in a secure manner,” Young said. He did not offer a timeline for when all systems will come back online.

The Baltimore City Council president also plans to form a special committee to investigate this latest attack and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A similar attack using RobbinHood hit government computers in Greenville, North Carolina, in April. A spokesperson for Greenville told the Wall Street Journal that the city never wound up paying, and that while its systems aren’t entirely restored, “all of our major technology needs are now being met.”

More than 20 municipalities in the US have been hit by cyberattacks this year alone. And such attacks can be expensive, perhaps especially if targets say they won’t pay. In 2018, hackers demanded that Atlanta pay about $50,000 in bitcoins as part of a ransomware attack. The city refused, and according to a report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, the attack wound up costing the city $17 million to fix.

Ransomware attacks aren’t new — but we’re still figuring out how to deal with them

In 2017, a ransomware called WannaCry targeted tens of thousands of computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems in more than 100 countries. Officials in the US and the United Kingdom eventually blamed North Korea for the attack. Also in 2017, corporations in the UK, France, Russia, Israel, and Ukraine experienced ransomware attacks. US hospitals were also targeted.

Here’s how Timothy Lee explained for Vox what was going on and how ransomware had become more prolific:

The basic idea behind ransomware is simple: A criminal hacks into your computer, scrambles your files with unbreakable encryption, and then demands that you pay for the encryption key needed to unscramble the files. If you have important files on your computer, you might be willing to pay a lot to avoid losing them.

Ransomware schemes have become a lot more effective since the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Conventional payment networks like Visa and Mastercard make it difficult to accept payments without revealing your identity. Bitcoin makes that a lot easier. So the past four years have seen a surge in ransomware schemes striking unsuspecting PC users.

Some ransomware schemes are so sophisticated that they even invest in customer service, helping victims who want to pay their ransoms navigate the complexities of obtaining bitcoins and making bitcoin payments.

Since then, a number of sectors and organizations have made improvements to their security practices to protect against ransomware. But the latest Baltimore attack exemplifies what a whack-a-mole game this is: One area improves its practices and hackers just go looking for another.


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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Cameron Russell for ELLE

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A film by Kai Z Feng of our February 2014 cover.

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