Tell people that you’re thinking of writing something about Four Loko and watch them emit a long, weary groan of recognition. Tell them that you’re consciously choosing to go to a Four Loko-sponsored concert, featuring electronic bro icon Diplo and notorious joke-stealing “Instagram celebrity” The Fat Jew, and watch them quietly make a judgment about who you are as a person.
This almost seems by design. Four Loko is noteworthy mostly for the revulsion it inspires in people—the drinking world’s Limp Bizkit or Guy Fieri. Tequila once had the reputation of an instant hangover, and possibly a regrettable tattoo, but today it’s almost boorish to suggest that agave-based liquor is just a shot for people on vacation. Even something like Jeppson’s Malört, the notoriously acrid liquor popular in Chicago, is at least intentionally gross. People fear Four Loko; they despise it. The notion of venturing into a pulsing neon cave of Loko-mad Diplo fans felt bravely investigative to me. And it was with this spirit that I accepted an invitation to attend the final stop of The Fat Jew’s cheekily named “IRL” tour, possible seizures be damned.
I could smell the sour apple the moment I walked in, waiting to check my coat as mosh-friendly dubstep rattled the walls. It was only 5:30 p.m. and the people standing in line with me were already drinking the fluorescent beverage. The smell had not changed much in the decade-plus since I first consumed it. Originally released in 2005 in a non-Loko variant, Four capitalized upon the popularity of energy drinks by combining a Red Bull’s worth of alcohol with 16 ounces of beer, while also tossing in taurine, guarana, and wormwood, the last of which was supposedly the psychoactive ingredient in absinthe. It wasn’t, and the result didn’t make you trip. It did, however, make you extremely drunk, a quality exacerbated after it was repackaged it in the neon camouflage guise of Four Loko, each 24-ounce can of which contained four beers worth of alcohol and two Red Bulls worth of caffeine.
The combination of silly name, trashy packaging, and liver-obliterating indulgence captured something in the public imagination, catapulting the grotesque intoxicant from frat-house obscurity into the public consciousness. In the ensuing years, Four Loko became the subject of countless rap tracks. It was also blamed for numerous crimes, including some truly heinous shit. Four Loko was arguably the “bath salts” of its era, a legally acquirable drug that served as a brief focal point for public paranoia.
The drink’s manufacturer played coy about its reputation at the time, memorably telling The Fix, “There are plenty of people who take the can and pour it over ice and split it with people.” To be fair, that is what they were doing with it at the IRL tour. The many excited boys wearing sunglasses and girls wearing light-up devil horns merrily drinking it all around me seemed happy enough, but I wondered: Were they getting high on the drink, or just the nostalgia? After all, Four Loko’s producers nixed caffeine from their recipe in 2010 due to FDA pressure, a decision which was met—at least online—by mass despair. People made bootleg batches of it, and risked jail time for selling old cases of it online. Four Loko has received many teary-eyed eulogies in the intervening years, developing a surprisingly sticky second life as a meme.
Last year, I started to see the old Four logo pop up on some of the low-brow “weird Instagram” accounts I follow, such as Pizza Slime and Versace Tamagotchi, which aim to subvert the platform’s coffee-shop selfie format in favor of knowing shit-pic memes and bottom-tier internet detritus. Like a lot of internet comedy, there’s a razor-thin line between good and bad that these accounts walk. Four Loko’s ironic appropriation by this set did not surprise me—there’s also a lot of Korn and Fox Racing iconography down this particular internet rabbit hole—but the notion that Four Loko itself was sponsoring this ironic embrace did.
A casual perusal of Four’s current, hyper-masculine Instagram presence suggests a newly emboldened brand expanding upon its playbook of garish packaging and blackout drinking with added images of EDM festivals, scantily clad women, and snarky exhortations to get fucking lit. It also seems to have traded its affectation of absinthe for a new affectation of molly. The grossness of Four Loko had always been a meme in the classic sense, but the embrace of Instagram and choice of collaborators proves that it’s eager to do so in the more modern sense: Don’t just get fucking lit, Four Loko seems to be saying. Get ironically lit and post about it, please.
When I finally got inside the IRL tour, I was met with that sense of deflation that always accompanies marketing bluster meeting the real world. This was no Ibizan bacchanalia. It was a gaggle of frazzled, cow-eyed weekend warriors queueing up for free drinks, an after-work mixer of the damned. There were multiple men wearing fedoras. There was a Four Loko throne for ironic selfies and a couple of promotional models handing out light-up balloons. Looking at the laminated drink menu, my eyes immediately settled on Four Loko Gold, which had intrigued me earlier in the day thanks to this exchange on Four Loko’s official FAQ:
Q: What Flavor is “Four Loko Gold”?
A: Four Loko Gold is quickly becoming one of our most popular flavors.
Further literature proves equally cagey, describing the liquid alternately as new, distinct, refreshing, dazzling, great, “the gold standard,” and delicious—but never once using an actual term for a flavor. Intrigued on purely journalistic grounds, I saddled up to the balcony bar (directly adjacent to the folding table offering offensive glow-in-the-dark face paint) and ordered a tall glass of Gold. The amber-hued liquid tasted just as golden as anticipated, with an almost antagonistic shock of sugar that immediately numbed my teeth and tongue. It was not noticeably gross. It was not noticeably anything, besides sugary. I was queasy before it was halfway gone.
But just as the sugar immediately fire-bombed my taste receptors such that drinking more did not immediately register as “sweet,” so too did the queasiness subside as I drank more. Determined to avoid such actual food-based flavors as “watermelon” and “fruit punch,” I eventually had two more glasses of mystery in the form of Frost and Blast, both of which ended up being, to my disappointment, plain old blue raspberry. Whether there was a subtle difference at all I cannot say; perhaps I would have been better off shifting to Four Loko’s collaboration with Hooters—Purple Hooter—or trying whatever the hell Pink Scorpion was.
Aside from the disappointing taste, there was something dispiriting about drinking Four Loko again—over and above the expected ennui that accompanies drinking Four Loko as a 32-year-old man. Perhaps it was just that it was on ice, not glugging out of a can the size of my forearm, but it didn’t taste like the fabled worst beverage known to man. I was not appalled by it. I was not shocked. I had been promised cantaloupe-flavored molly, and instead was drinking vodka-spiked Kool-Aid.
The crowd, which had slowly filled out the venue, was also drinking the Kool-Aid; they eventually assumed the chattery glow of a crowd of drunk people. Onstage, Instagram stars Catstradamus and Pizzaslime played Travis Scott and Drake tracks with the enthusiasm of other drunk people handed the AUX cord. Two enthusiastic men in windbreakers calling themselves Party Pupils came onstage and did karaoke to a handful more tracks before the night’s first great attraction arrived: The Fat Jew himself, who danced to Major Lazer tracks for 30 minutes to enthusiastic reception.
The Fat Jew—real name Josh Ostrovsky—has frequently been criticized for his practice of reposting viral tweets and Instagrams without attribution; at 9.5 million followers, he is one of the platform’s biggest stars, a fame which he sarcastically trades for $100,000 party promotion packages on his website. Having seen the actual effort he puts into such promotion, I cannot say it was worth it—but what do I know? He did some dance moves and yelled. The crowd seemed pretty wasted and he got a solid plug in, remarking as the crowd posed for a picture at the end of his set, “I wanna make a memory so we never forget this—because Four Loko will make you forget this!”
I include this quote because a) it is the only direct quote I wrote down in my notebook that evening, and b) he was sort of right. Four Loko is designed to make you forget Four Loko, because Four Loko is itself forgettable. This is particularly true in 2017. Those groans of distaste I received when I mentioned my plans to attend the IRL Tour were not directed toward the beverage’s flavor, but toward whatever the surplus of caffeine in it made the drinker do back in its pre-2010 golden years. Today, Four Loko is not much better or worse than any iced drink ordered off of the flip-menu on a chain restaurant’s table. And there is something sad about this, as with the aging of any former rebel.
This is why Four Loko’s branding today is so brazen: Now that it has no reason for a bad reputation, it wants to remind you of its bad reputation. As I watched security guards distribute inflatable flamingos and bananas throughout the crowd, I realized that I was possibly the only person in the audience who had ever drank the real, caffeinated Four Loko—excepting The Fat Jew, who, if you pricked him, would probably bleed the stuff. But rather than being dispirited, I soldiered out of the sticky, sour apple abyss impressed. Despite all of those eulogies over the years, Four Loko is still alive. As long as people think it sucks, it is immortal.