One of the tiniest tragedies of my life is that I never drank Four Loko before it was banned. This was a deliberate decision. Though I'm a big fan of bad ideas, mixing caffeine with alcohol is monumentally stupid, the equivalent of coating Peter Luger steak in ketchup or supporting Sarah Palin.
By incorporating caffeine into the alcoholic mix, you're both wide-awake and wildly wasted, seemingly kept moving by marionette strings. Want another analogy? Red Bull gives you wings, keeping you flying high long after you should've crashed. I never fancied the cloying, chemical tang of Red Bull, so named because it contains amino acid taurine, which was discovered in bull bile. Make mine a double, and I'll see you at 6 a.m.!
Nonetheless, I'm no stranger to caffeinated malt beverages. In the early 2000s, sweet-tart Sparks made a splash in Downtown Manhattan and the trendier precincts of Brooklyn. Lord, was that foul stuff. It tasted like sugary Windex and left drinkers jittery, with tongues an unhealthy yellow-orange hue. (Want a quick laugh? Google "Sparks tongue." Dear readers, these are tomorrow's world leaders.)
Sparks' wildfire appeal was due less to its flavor than two factors: the drink's rocket-fuel kick and its marketing scheme. Though I never spent a cent on Sparks, I consumed it more times than I can remember—not much of an accomplishment, mind you. As a promotional ploy, Sparks' owners (the San Francisco–based beverage marketers McKenzie River Corporation) gave away thousands of cans of the sickly stuff. Sparks was de rigueur at open-bar events around New York. If you wanted to get tanked for free, you drank Sparks.
The tactic worked to a T. Sparks became the preferred beverage for wasted youth. But the edgy fun ended in late 2008, when new owners MillerCoors bowed to watchdog pressure and nixed caffeine in Sparks. Distraught twentysomethings were forced to stay conscious the old-fashioned way: cocaine. Then along came Four Loko, which met the same fate as Sparks. When it comes to gimmicky alcoholic beverages, history is doomed to repeat itself.
Or maybe not. Last weekend, my girlfriend and I were dining with my friend Matt and his gal pal. They'd just returned from a Christmas adventure to his girlfriend's Virginia home. For Matt, going down south means indulging in his favorite activity: uncovering oddball foods and drinks. On previous trips, he's returned bearing moldy country hams, jars of leather-color "spicy dippin' sauce" and moonshine that tastes like birthday cake.
Hence, you'd understand my apprehension when he handed me a beer bottle–shape package wrapped in the New York Times.
"Open it," he commanded with a cackle. I shook the package. Thick liquid sloshed around. Liquefied lard? I ripped off the newsprint and revealed a can of whipped cream. "You shouldn't have, Matt," I said. "That's not any normal can," he said, pointing at the label: Whipped Lightning, flavored whipped cream infused with grain alcohol.
Whoa. Whipahol is a true two-way threat to sobriety: One can either huff nitrous oxide or get drunk. It's the best of both brain-damaging worlds! Whipped Lightning comes in nine flavors of Whipahol (yes, it's called Whipahol), ranging from Strawberry Colada to German Chocolate and Caramel Pecan, which is what Matt gave me. Each can of Whipahol checks in at 16.75 percent alcohol by volume (33.5 proof), making it slightly weaker than sake.
"I'd have to guzzle the whole can to get drunk," I told Matt. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he asked. When I was in elementary school, I loved sneaking into the kitchen, retrieving Reddi-wip from the fridge and filling my mouth with chemically delicious cream. I should know better by now. I don't.
I shook my Whipahol nice and hard and then knocked my head back. I parted my jaws like a python, then topped my tongue with an alcoholic cloud. It was wincingly strong yet somewhat… satisfying and appealing. Whipped Lightning lit up the same taste receptors that make me crave a Big Mac, Chicken McNuggets and Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies.
"This is so going to sit on my liquor shelf," I told my girlfriend, much to her chagrin. "Can't we hide this in the fridge?" I shook my head and pointed to three small, frightening words inscribed across the can: do not refrigerate.