In what might not be entirely surprising news: Four Loko actually got its start in the basement of a fraternity house. The brand’s three founders — former Ohio State University students and Kappa Sigma members Jeff Wright, Jaisen Freeman, and Christopher Hunter — were inspired to create the beverage after witnessing the explosive growth of early aughts energy drinks like Monster Energy and the subsequent launch of Sparks, an alcoholic “energy beer.”
The trio founded Four Loko parent company Phusion Projects in 2005 and started producing an alcoholic energy drink of their own. Caffeinated and offered in 12-ounce cans at 6 percent ABV, the original Four Loko launched that same year struggled to take off. But in 2008, the founders upped the product’s volume to a 24-ounce tall boy, increased its alcohol content, and introduced its now infamous camouflage print packaging.
This eye-catching can — combined with the one-two punch of more alcohol and more caffeine — made the product a near-instant success among college students looking to get as intoxicated as possible for as little money as possible. Despite its cult-like following, this iteration of Four Loko would be short-lived. In 2010, the brand was mandated to change its original formula due to the numerous health risks associated with consuming alcohol and caffeine simultaneously. But despite its now uncaffeinated nature, Four Loko remains a staple among college-aged consumers enticed by its 12 percent ABV and $2.50 price tag.
Now that you know the basics, here are eight more things you need to know about Four Loko.
The “Four” in Four Loko represents the original four key ingredients.
When Four Loko was in development, there were four ingredients central to its recipe: caffeine, taurine, guarana, and wormwood (an active ingredient in absinthe). As absinthe is shrouded in myths falsely touting the drink’s ability to make you hallucinate, many originally thought that wormwood in Four Loko’s recipe would provide similar psychoactive effects. In reality, it just tasted pretty bad, and was dropped from the recipe in 2008. As the ABV was hiked at the same time, alcohol became Four Loko’s key fourth key ingredient. With such a combination, it’s no wonder the founders chose to incorporate “Loko” into the name — after consuming that combination of stimulants and depressants, it’s likely you’ll be acting a bit crazy.
The early Four Loko was unofficially dubbed as a “blackout in a can.”
The Four Loko recipe that sent the brand’s popularity skyrocketing is also the one that was ultimately squashed by the government. Produced with malt liquor, each 24-ounce can contained as much alcohol as four to six 12-ounce beers, and as much caffeine as there is in six cups of coffee. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), caffeine has the ability to mask the depressive effects of alcohol, making drinkers feel more alert and less intoxicated than they are. As such, consumers tend to drink more alcohol, and are more at risk for health-related incidents. Referred to by fans as a “blackout in a can” and “the binge-drinker’s dream” by CNN, the iteration of Four Loko launched in the late aughts was linked to a number of injuries and even deaths in young drinkers. By 2010, the University of Maryland had banned the product from its campus altogether. Soon after, states like Michigan, Washington, Utah, and Oklahoma followed suit and banned the drink.
Following a slew of other incidents involving simultaneous consumption of alcohol and caffeine from other brands, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outlawed caffeinated alcoholic drinks completely in November 2010. Phusion Projects and three other companies manufacturing similar products received letters from the FDA declaring that caffeine is an “unsafe food additive” and warned of a potential seizure of their products if not pulled or reintroduced without caffeine. Shortly thereafter, Four Loko announced its would be reformulating its beverage without caffeine.
A vigil was held in New York City when it was announced the Four Loko formulation would be changing.
It’s safe to say not everyone was happy about the policy change. Shortly after the FDA’s move, fans of the beverage gathered in Union Square to celebrate their love for the fallen drink. The Village Voice, an NYC-based publication, reported a crowd of fans chanting things like “What do we want? Four Loko! When do we want it? Forever!” while marching around the square. The crowd then lit candles, shared Four-Loko related memories — or a lack thereof — and listened to a performance from Brooklyn-based 8-bit punk band Anamanaguchi.
After the recipe changed, a Four Loko black market emerged.
While the FDA’s new policy didn’t go into effect until November 2010, reports of a potential ban had started much earlier. As such, Four Loko fanatics — and those looking to make a quick buck — stocked up on the drink in order to resell it on secondary markets. In January 2011, NBC New York reported that cans of Four Loko were “one of the hottest products on Craigslist,” with the network’s reporters acquiring a case of 12 for $80 dollars in their investigation of the black market — nearly three times the market price. On primary markets, that same case would have sold for just $30. According to the man who sold the reporters the case, he was selling the cans as “collectables” not intended for drinking.
Unsold original Four Loko was transformed into fuel.
Forced to pivot, Four Loko, its retailers, and distributors were left with a massive amount of unsold product to sit on. So, in collaboration with MXI Environmental Services in Abingdon, Va., and two other plants, leftover caffeinated Four Loko was repurposed into fuel. Hundreds of trucks, each of which contained 2,000 cases of 24-ounce Four Loko cans, arrived at the facilities where their contents were transformed into ethanol that very well could have powered your car. MXI Environmental Services also recycled the beverage cans, the water used while transforming it into fuel, the cardboard boxes the cans arrived in, and their shipping pallets.
A revamped Four Loko was introduced in 2011.
The new Four Loko was launched to markets in January 2011, then completely caffeine-free. Upon reintroduction, the beverage’s ABV was also changed, and now varies depending on which state the product is sold in. Four Loko’s alcohol by volume can range anywhere from 8 percent in states like Montana to 14 percent in states like New York and Pennsylvania. Today, there are 15 different flavors of Four Loko available in three different series, still sold in that signature tall boy can. Core flavors include Electric Lemonade, Red, Black, Gold, Fruit Punch, Watermelon, Peach, Strawberry Lemonade, and Grape, while the sour series includes Sour Melon, Blue Razz, Sour Apple, and Sour Grape. The brand’s most recent line is the Innovation Series, which features Four Loko USA and Warheads Sour Loko.
The brand sought to reestablish its party brand with the launch of Four Loko Pregame.
While cans of Four Loko have remained a mainstay in college and fraternity culture, the brand launched Four Loko Pregame in 2020 in an effort to revive its party reputation from the early aughts. According to the brand, the non-carbonated beverage is intended to be taken as shots, but can also be used as a mixer with other types of alcohol. Bottled at 13.9 percent ABV, the drink is currently available in seven flavors: Sour Blue Razz, Sour Peach, Sour Apple, Lemonade, Sour Grape, Wicked Tea, and sour-white Cherry flavored Loko USA.
The brand has a… record label?
Four Loko has a history of supporting the music industry, partnering with artists like DJ Dillon Francis, rapper Lil Mariko, and more. In 2021, it decided to take its initiative one step further with the launch of Four Loko Records, its own record label. The brand currently has three musicians signed to the label: American DJ Ventino Khan and rappers Wifisfuneral and YBN Almighty Jay.
“We sign what we like to listen to when we’re chilling, working out, partying, jet skiing, scuba diving,” the brand says. “We’ve been working with awesome artists for years, so we figured ‘F*ck it, let’s put out some bangers.’”