The rise and fall of Four Loko: Ancient American Traditions

Posted by Brian Connor

The last Four Lokos flew off the shelves and the powers-that-be patted themselves on the back for quashing yet another moral epidemic. Teenagers and college students muttered their complaints as the season of the Four Loko came to a close. Now, as our bodega coolers are restocked with a less reprehensible version of the beverage, hindsight grants us an opportunity to better understand the rise and fall of Four Loko. What should we make of this fleeting phenomenon? Should we be mourning or celebrating its demise? Despite the hype, the beverage was an ugly one and we are all better off now that it is gone, but not for the reasons you were given by the television.

Looking back now, it seems it was inevitable all along. As soon as the press got wind of it, as soon as politicians recognized its value as a pointless attention-diverting wedge issue (which, I believe, also played upon border-crazy conservative Hispanophobia), the fate of this beverage was sealed.

The story of Four Loko is an old one. Like Icarus, Four Loko flew too high, grew too big. The beverage attained heights of popularity that made it easy prey for critics. And this criticism created more buzz than the drink itself; the drink was nothing without the media phenomenon that accompanied it. Even its detractors basked in the eerie glow of this star that grew too big. Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz drank three of the 22.5oz, 12 percent alcohol-by-volume, highly caffeinated beverages in a publicity stunt veiled as a public service announcement. In order to understand how this cultural witch-hunt was started, it's necessary to take a look at the sociology of this particular drink.

What apparently hasn't crossed the minds of the disgruntled, righteously indignant masses of Four Loko fans, is that the same buzz is and has always been available. Irish Coffee (a drink so iconic and fundamentally appealing that its name now brings to mind an image of a functional alcoholic looking for a morning buzz more than it does a beverage option) has been offering the Four Loko kick in a much more palatable form ever since Ethiopian traders first crossed paths with Gaels. This drink is so pervasive that it has even spawned a more sophisticated spin-off, the Espresso Martini.

The people purchasing Four Lokos at the "ghetto" Getty (as it is known to students) are in search of the same buzz as the young professionals sipping Espresso Martinis at Max London's, yet one poses a threat to society, and the other seems to be a testament to our society's productivity and refinement. The people drinking at Max London's are paying upwards of $10 for their cocktails, while those purchasing Four Lokos are paying $3. The distinction being drawn by the press and politicians between the cruder, cheaper substance and the more refined and cultured one, is reminiscent of the double standard applied to crack and cocaine, which has repugnant racial and class implications.

The Espresso Martini offers the exact same thing as Four Loko, but politicians and the press would never rally against Espresso Martinis. Surely, our collective cultural understandings would assure us, people who drink "Martinis" could never pose a threat to the status-quo — their ranks comprise the status-quo (despite the fact that "espresso martini" is a gigantically widespread misnomer, as is every other "‘blank'-Martini;" the word "Martini" refers to one particular mix of ingredients, 7 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth).

When all the drinks are on the table, there are little to no differences to be observed in the effects. Yet Four Loko embodies, in the eyes of politicians and the media, a frightening lapse of control.

But the truth, the real evil behind Four Loko, is not its contents, but its degradation of a potentially wonderful and intellectually stimulating activity with a rich trans-national and multicultural history. Alcohol consumption reaches across all cultures, races, ethnicities, social classes and nationalities (with the exception of certain Islamic nations).

The use of alcohol is one of humankind's most shared and widespread characteristics, almost approaching basic bodily functions in its universality. Consequently, we are offered an almost endless multiplicity of culturally engaging means of consumption. From crude Vietnamese rice wine, to South African beer, to Dom Perignon, culturally engaging alcoholic beverages run the gamut in availability and price.

Despite the potentially culturally enriching experience that we might undertake in drinking, young people swarm to a sickly sweet and obnoxiously intoxicating, cheap, canned, energy drink. Four Loko, like Walmart or McDonalds, offers you the illusion of participating in something real, like shopping or eating, but instead gives you an obscene substitute, which leaves you queasy and reeling.

Those who lament the fall of Four Loko need only progress and forge their own mixological canon. The world of drinking is an exciting one, and Four Loko is an abomination of something that is meant to be fulfilling and curiosity-spurring. If you treat alcohol with respect and put the time and energy into making your own drink, that drink will reward you tenfold. Four Loko is gone, but you are left with much more as a result: you have your imaginations and your innate drive to experience alternative states of consciousness, and no one can take that away from you.

Brian Connor is a senior American studies major from Brooklyn who spends his summer nights at Siro's.

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