Last November, at the Food and Drug Administration’s insistence, beverage company Phusion Projects removed caffeine from the recipe of Four Loko — its incredibly popular and, according to an increasing number of scientific studies, wildly dangerous drink. Loko’s patent mixture of caffeine and alcohol, sold in a colorful, youth-slanting can and flavored like sugary, fruity soda, was said to enable binge drinking and slyly target the nearly eight million teenagers who regularly buy energy drinks. Unsurprisingly, it’s still somewhat of a scapegoat in the ongoing fight against alcohol abuse: within the last month alone, Four Loko was linked to the case of an intoxicated toddler in Houston, Phusion was sued by a man in New Jersey for allegedly causing heart damage, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission railed against the drink for its manipulative marketing strategy, and reports from New York state cited Four Loko’s involvement in all seven of its alcohol poisoning cases thus far this year — five of which concerned underage drinkers.
Throughout this assault on so-called “alcopops,” other players in the non-beer adult beverage market — which comprises sweetened drinks like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice — have avoided high-visibility advertising and new product launches, evidently happy enough to fly under the radar. All, that is, except for one brazen booze giant: Colt 45, which on April 5th will debut Blast, its fruity foray into the most controversial corner of American liquor sales. The drink — which features packaging that, according to Vermont state representative Tom Stevens, “continues to blur the distinction between alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks” — will come in six-packs for about seven dollars, each single serving containing 1.5 times the alcohol of light beer. And, as if enough evidence doesn’t already exist that Colt is catering to teens, the company has taken on Snoop Dogg as a spokesperson and is relying heavily on Twitter and Facebook for its early promotional efforts. (Here’s a sample Snoop Dogg tweet, which, for those unfamiliar with either his hobbies or Californian street vocabulary, is a reference to marijuana: “puffin on some grand daddy…purp got grey hairs like a paw-paw 4reaL.”)
For the Metropoulos brothers, who acquired Colt 45 parent brewery Pabst last May, the Blast drink is an attempt to reinvigorate the deflating Colt brand — which has faced declining sales for more than ten years. The brothers also want in on the non-beer adult beverage industry, which is nearing $1 billion in worth after realizing a 19 percent increase over the last year. Lastly, Blast is a bid to broaden the appeal of the Colt 45 brand, which has historically been aimed at the urban, African-American consumer — and even criticized for doing so. (Two decades ago, brewers faced backlash for a commercial in which a young black man addressed the value of giving back and then reached for a Colt 45: the ad linked “black success with malt liquor [in] cynical and exploitative [ways],” argued its opponents.)
How, then, will Colt 45′s Blast beverage be viewed? And, perhaps more importantly: are FDA criticism and the involvement of watchdog groups bad things for business, or just fuel for a nation of teenagers who find new reason to seek out dubious products when society’s elders warn them not to? The drink’s earliest critics are unhappy that Colt might be unfairly exploiting urban youth; as explained by North Carolinian reverend Paul Scott, who is already calling for boycotts of Blast, the drink “is just another attempt to attract the hip-hop generation…[and] blast the minds of our children.” This line of thinking is similar to that of the black activists who attacked tobacco companies in the nineties for selling menthol cigarettes almost exclusively to African American consumers — who, despite smoking less than whites, face higher levels of addiction and lung disease because menthols are the most addictive cigarette on the market. For now, Blast’s marketing team is urging drinkers to dilute the beverage with ginger ale or juice; whether they take that message to heart in the midst of Snoop Dogg quotes, Facebook updates and a Twitter frenzy is yet to be seen.