I wasted my youth and ruined my hearing playing rock 'n' roll in the '70s. Every Friday and Saturday night, my band tried to get a bar full of people dancing with covers of the Stones, ZZ Top and Marshall Tucker. If we ran into a night when the dance floor was filling up slowly or when things seemed otherwise dull, we would pull from our sonic arsenal the tune guaranteed to get people moving: Eric Clapton's "Cocaine."
The song has a nice beat, but it was the subject matter as much as anything else that got people grooving with their funky selves. Dancing to Clapton's hit meant you were hip. You may not have the cash-or even have the nerve to risk the trouble from the law-to score a gram, but you could still be cool by taking the risk of dancing to the song, which was, really, no risk at all.
This past year, Redux Beverages came out with a new energy drink, and they slapped the name Cocaine on the side of the can. Of course, there is no cocaine in the 8.4 ounces of fizzy water. It does, however, give a big, big jolt, with 280 milligrams of caffeine. That's about as much caffeine as you'll get from three cups of coffee or three and a half Red Bulls. A graph on the can's side shows the silhouettes of three and a half steers to give you an idea of what you're in for with one of these.
Filling a can with so much caffeine has gotten the drink some notoriety, but naming their drink after a highly addictive controlled substance is what has gotten the reactions and the headlines. Hannah Kirby, who, with her husband Jamie Kirby, founded Redux Beverages, says that the name was, in some ways, a no-brainer.
"Jamie came up with the name of Reboot," she says. "He's a programmer and so that seemed obvious to him. We found out later that another energy-drink company had taken that name. Once we decided to make an energy drink and started doing the research on it, we found all these allusions to cocaine in the literature-it's some sort of subtext to people into energy drinks. So Jamie said, "Why don't we just go ahead and call it Cocaine?'"
Launching their drink this past September, the Kirbys sent a case of Cocaine to the New York Post. Newspapers, of course, need headlines, and for a newspaper like the Post, this sort of story is bread and butter-not a terrorist story to scare the bejesus out of everybody, or the city council's latest consideration of a water project-but a story that is easy to understand and might just get a few readers to say something like, "Kids these days...."
Redux Beverages has no lobbyists and gives no money to political candidates or parties, so it was an obvious target for politicians and other attention seekers. Recently a New York City Councilmember, James Sanders, had plans to lead a protest against the drink. Al Sharpton got into the act, saying last month that he was going to make a similar protest, but it never came to pass. Playing it safe, 7-Eleven announced in October that it was refusing to carry the drink because of its name. In the meantime, stories appeared in other major newspapers, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and on CNN and Fox News.
Of course, all the bad press and protests have had the desired effect of creating demand in a youth market. (The only media coverage that the Kirbys have received that might be bad for them in this market is a profile/interview on The Daily Show that made them look quite foolish.) Inquiries and requests have come in from all over the country. And the Kirbys have received e-mails from more than 150 countries from people interested in distributing Cocaine overseas. And all this from one case of the drink to one newspaper.
"This really hit us by surprise," says Hannah Kirby. "We thought we would go to market in New York and Los Angeles. But it's really expanding. We're opening up in upstate New York, around Rochester, and we're opening up in the greater Pittsburgh area. The biggest surprise is that there are people who tell us that they'll quit their jobs to become distributors."
The biggest snag the Kirbys have encountered with their negative advertising technique occurred last week, when the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied Redux Beverages a trademark for Cocaine. The trademark was just about to be granted, when a group of law-school students from Cleveland State University in Ohio filed a trademark opposition on the grounds that the name Cocaine was "immoral and scandalous." They also said that the name was "deceptively misdescriptive," meaning that the drink contains no cocaine. The Kirbys nonetheless remain undaunted and say that it won't keep them from making their drink.
And, once again, like the hipsters of the '70s grooving to Eric Clapton, the young folks who drink Cocaine know that they are quite safe. After television, caffeine is the most widely used drug in America, with 90 percent of adults drinking tea, coffee or a caffeinated beverage of some sort every day. Although there are recent headlines about caffeine use that contain the phrase "Health officials concerned," the most common ailment from too much caffeine is a bad case of the jitters, not the brain-bleeding, liver-slicing effects of other abused substances, like crystal meth. Some studies indicate caffeine may play a part in some women developing hypertension, but the results are inconclusive.
Nonetheless, just like everything else-even oxygen-caffeine can be lethal if you pour enough of it into you. I used the Death by Caffeine website (type it into Google) to see how close a can of Cocaine comes to doing me in. Into its database I put in Red Bull, my weight and clicked on "Kill Me." I got the figure 156.97 cans of Red Bull, or 44.85 cans of Cocaine, to drink if I wanted to meet the Grim Barista.
I met the Kirbys through mutual friends five or six years ago. They're the kind of folks that if your friends knew them, they would convince you to invite them to your next party. "They're so interesting!" your friends would say. They're both quite bright, giving off a homespun, Midwestern kind of glow but without the Lake Woebegone baggage. They live in the outskirts of the outskirts of North County up an unpaved road that, I'm told, can turn into a white-knuckle ride to the uninitiated. A couple years back, Hannah produced a film in India. It's a serious movie-not typical of the singing, smiling, dancing Bollywood fare-that depicted the plight of widows and their treatment as second-class citizens in the Asian subcontinent.
Under the adult supervision of the Kirbys, I tried a Cocaine. Ice cold, I sipped from the can. It tasted sort of like Dr. Pepper and a little bit like Cherry Coke-sweet, but not as sweet as either. I liked the slight taste of cinnamon. It also has a burn and a bite that follows down the throat. I had emptied about half the can when I felt a knot about the size of a grapefruit forming in my belly. Jamie Kirby told me, "You won't get a sugar crash from these. We use dextrose instead of sucrose. This does not send your liver into overdrive." The knot was still in my belly, but I felt reassured that no one was trying to overdrive my liver. I smiled at Jamie and took another sip.
Jamie said they consulted with a well-known chemist who's been working in the energy-drink industry for years. The grapefruit started to get a little bigger and roll around a little bit. I got an odd sensation in my forehead, like a pressure on my frontal lobes. I continued to sip. I was certain that I was becoming smarter, without studying or reading books. This feeling of immense self-satisfaction continued for about four minutes; I then realized that I couldn't think of anything smart.
Now here is the interesting part: I'm a lover of coffee and tea, drinking one or the other every day. But I don't drink a lot at any one time. If I pay the extra 75 cents at Twiggs, my usual caffeine-distribution center, and get a refill of half a cup, I get jittery and my palms get sweaty. Here, I was pumping myself way past that level. But my palms remained as dry as Death Valley, and I didn't get jittery. I don't know if what I felt was euphoria. It was different, but nothing I would say was something that I would be champing at the bit to do over again. I'm almost done with the can, and I'm starting to feel a little queasy. I back off, leaving a few sips at the bottom. The Kirbys claim the effects will last for about five hours, but I'm feeling pretty much back to normal within an hour.
Hannah emphasizes that the target market for their drink is 21- to 35-year-olds. If she were the parent of a 15-year-old who brought home a can of Cocaine? "Number one, children should not be drinking caffeinated beverages of any kind. I think it would be the perfect opportunity to sit her down and explain to her the dangers of illegal drugs."
Through our conversations, Hanna compared the brouhaha surrounding the new drink to the sensation of Elvis Presley, which is probably a pretty spot-on comparison. Presley sneered, shook his hips and caused a stir with the youth of America 50 years ago, but he was still respectful and deferential to his elders. Deep down, he was a good kid and a safe enough commodity for Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen to have him on their shows. He was dangerous enough to appeal to the kids, but not dangerous enough to cause any real harm.