Four Loko is officially crashing the hard-seltzer party with all the subtlety you would expect from the company that brought you the now-banned beverage dubbed “blackout in a can.”
After teasing the news of the impending release on social media this summer to monster effect, the company last week debuted its entry, a black-cherry bomb, into the booming category of boozy, fizzy water — the drink that millennials are increasingly picking over traditional beer and wine options. Modestly dubbed “the hardest seltzer in the universe,” Four Loko’s product, which will be in stores nationwide within the next week or so, proudly bucks the trends prevalent on shelves.
Other seltzers may tout their slim cans (so chic!), low alcohol levels (you can party all day!) and calorie counts, all the better for swilling after a particularly grueling leg day. But Four Loko? It’s not health food. It’s not pretending to be. It’s here to get you buzzed, fast, and it doesn’t care who knows it.
First, there’s its beefy can, which bears the brand’s signature bro-y camo print and contains a whopping 24 ounces. And then there’s the holy-moly 12 percent alcohol by volume, which is more than twice that of White Claw, the hard seltzer dominating the market, which contains a sessionable 5 percent.
Down the entire thing (which, c’mon, really is the point — it’s not as if you’re going to split one), and you’ve imbibed the equivalent of an entire bottle of vino, which means you probably shouldn’t be texting anyone.
Aggressive? Yes, but it’s deliberately so, says Donna Hood Crecca, who monitors beverage trends for food service research and consultancy firm Technomic. Crecca notes that the hard-seltzer marketplace is already pretty packed, with established brands such as White Claw, Truly and Bon & Viv being chased by Natural Light, PBR and Budweiser, as well as a slew of craft producers.
“If you’re going into a hot category that’s crowded, you have to go in with something different,” she says.
Which means a departure from hard seltzer’s trend toward lighter flavors and lower alcohol — the qualities of a quaff you could sip by the pool all day. “Hard seltzer is about refreshment, and it has a better-for-you positioning,” she says. “But then along comes Four Loko — they’ve done everything big, and they’ve always pushed the envelope.”
Jaisen Freeman, the co-founder of parent company Phusion, says Four Loko isn’t trying to go head-to-head with available hard seltzers. Rather, he says it’s is aimed at drinkers who aren’t getting what they want from the fizz that’s currently on the shelves. “There are people sitting on the sidelines, and we can bring consumers into the category,” he says.
As for the typical profile of a hard seltzer (i.e., light on flavor and booze): “That’s not what the DNA of our brand is, which is more flavor and more ABV,” he says. Of course, the company may be most famous for its original drink formula, whose potent one-two punch combination of caffeine and malt liquor was ultimately banned by the Food and Drug Administration.
The paler color of the seltzer can’s camouflage print seems to be the only attempt to fit in with the rest of the hard-seltzer fleet, which are usually packaged in slender white pop-tops meant to telegraph their youthful appeal.
Flavor and booze aren’t the only things that Four Loko turned up with its new beverage — it also sped up the timeline for getting it out to stores. After the company announced the impending product this summer, reaction on social media was enthusiastic, and the company rushed to capitalize. Part of hard seltzer’s success, particularly among millennials, is a result of the memes that have sprung up around it (for example, #whiteclawsummer was definitely a thing).
In typically bombastic fashion, the company in August tweeted a photo of a Four Loko seltzer can, with blurry images of its competitors in the backdrop. “Hard Seltzers ran so we could fly,” the caption read.
“Feedback was crazy,” Freeman says. “Right away we realized we needed to push this up and be part of the market.” The company went with a black cherry flavor and plans to add others, starting with a sour mango version, next year.
Since then, the company’s Twitter account has hyped the debut with posts trolling White Claw and Budweiser.
So what does the promise of a quick buzz in a can taste like? Unlike many would-be fans who are lamenting not being able to find it in stores yet, I got my hands on a few of them and invited a few colleagues to join me.
For starters, what is billed on the can as a “hint” of black cherry turned out to be more of a “yell” or perhaps a straight-up punch to the face. But then again, expecting finesse from a can of malt beverage is about as productive as resisting the hard seltzer tidal wave.
The flavor was distinctly over-the-counter-medicinal, though the tasters differed on which cold treatment it most resembled. Robitussin? Dimetapp? “I’d say Luden’s, but I like Luden’s,” one said.
Another thing that struck all of us was that the drink’s body was heavier than any seltzer we’d tried. It seemed that the bubbles were struggling to fizz in the viscous, syrupy liquid, which only contributed to the cough medicine effect. But it did deliver on the buzz. I’m no lightweight, but I could feel its effects after only a few sips — which is, perhaps, its very purpose for existing at all.
One thing seems certain: If Four Loko Fall really is the new White Claw Summer, we might not remember much of it.
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