Four Loko as part of a pairing dinner? The food was better than the drink.

spirits four loko
Four Loko, packing alcohol and caffeine, came in four -- uh, interesting -- flavors (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 2:31 PM

So last week at Adsum, one of Philadelphia's best new restaurants, I attended a three-course Four Loko pairing dinner. Yes, let me just repeat those last four words so you can mull them: Four Loko pairing dinner.

Four Loko is, of course, the infamous "malternative" energy drink loaded with alcohol and caffeine. Public officials demonized it as "blackout in a can"; the federal government banned it. This crisis was driven mainly by a bunch of stupid college students, particularly one group at Central Washington University, who drank themselves quickly and cheaply into the hospital. Anyway, thank goodness the Food and Drug Administration has solved all of the nation's other food-system woes and turned its attention to banning Four Loko.

Before it disappeared from the shelves, Adsum's chef Matt Levin bought 10 cases of the stuff in various flavors. What began as a joke on Twitter soon turned into a tasting dinner that sold out in minutes.

"As soon as I heard that Four Loko was being banned for combining caffeine and alcohol, I started hoarding it with this meal in mind," Levin said. "It seems absurd to me that a beverage that is marketed and sold to adults over 21 should be so strictly regulated, and this dinner is my way of saying, 'Hey, we can handle it!'"

So what pairs with Four Loko? Well, Moroccan lamb sausage and peppers with Orange Blend Loko, for starters. Then, with Lemonade Loko, barbecued chicken and pork, with Loko "pearls" and pickled watermelon rind. And for dessert, with Fruit Punch Loko, Loko vanilla pain perdu - that's French toast to you - and strawberries marinated in Loko slush.

The food was really great. Levin should win a special James Beard award simply for attempting that dinner. The Loko? Not so much.

Upon arrival, we were served a bright blue cocktail of Blueberry Loko, blue curacao and Malibu coconut-flavored rum, in a glass with a Pixy-Stix-sugared rim. It was cringe-inducing. But that cocktail confirmed one thing for me: I like Malibu rum even less than I like Four Loko.

The other three Lokos were served straight. Orange Blend was probably the best, the champagne of Lokos ("a wild mix of sweet orange flavors with a hint of peach," according to the company). "I like this better than the blue," said my dining companion. "At least my face hurts less when I drink it, because I don't wince as much."

It went downhill from there. The Lemonade Loko reminded me of lemon-fresh Mister Clean. And the Fruit Punch - good Lord, the Fruit Punch? "Ugh," said the woman at the table next to me. "This one smells like Tinkerbell peed in my glass." For me, it was reminiscent of cherry-flavored Chloraseptic Sore Throat Spray, and I think it numbed my throat in a similar fashion.

We tried a few halfhearted mixology strategies to improve the Loko. For instance, I dumped a few of my Loko pearls from the second course into the Lemonade Loko. It didn't help. Then a question arose: Does the Loko taste better fizzy or flat? "Well," the waiter said, "the fizz brings out more flavor, so I'd say wait until it's flat. I don't want my Four Loko open; I want it closed."

I'm happy to report that nothing bad happened to me or the diners around me. Sure, the guy two tables over forgot his cellphone, and the woman next to me forgot her red mittens, but overall, we were able to drink the Four Loko without incident. ("Please drink responsibly. Adsum will be happy to secure a taxi for you," it read at the bottom of the menu, by the way.)

That might be the last time we'll taste Four Loko in its wildly caffeinated form. But surely it will return someday in a slightly reconfigured fashion. At least that's what history tells us. In fact, just last month, another formerly banned alcoholic beverage with supposedly dangerous ingredients made a comeback, complete with a new recipe.

In that case, it was the wonderful Polish vodka Zubrowka, otherwise known as "the original bison grass vodka." Which I am thankful for, since the legendary Zubrowka is probably my favorite vodka in the world.

Zubrowka has been made since the Middle Ages by the Polmos Bialystok distillery, using wild grasses that the endangered European bison graze on in the Bialowieza Forest in Poland. The grass contains high levels of coumarin, a natural substance that is banned by the FDA (though it is found in many natural foodstuffs such as celery, cinnamon, chamomile and vanilla, and in such beauty products as shampoos and perfumes). Large doses of coumarin could be toxic, but very little of it is used in making bison-grass vodka.

Overreaction or not, the FDA has banned authentic Zubrowka from the American market since 1978. You'd find the occasional bottle in the United States, maybe on vodka menus at places such as Russia House. But until recently, you pretty much had to get it in Europe, where people have enjoyed Zubrowka for centuries with little ill effect.

Now, Polmos Bialystok has created a coumarin-free recipe, sold here under the brand name ZU, that's made with other herbs and natural seasonings to closely approximate the real thing and is even bottled with the traditional single wisp of bison grass.

ZU is herbaceous and nutty, with hints of chamomile and vanilla, and I highly recommend seeking it out. It's nice to take neat or with ginger beer, or with equal parts apple juice in a Polish concoction called szarlotka.

If only Four Loko could reinvent itself as something so delicious.

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound" (Ten Speed, 2010). He can be reached at jasonwilson.com. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.


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