The Great Big Ol’ Alcoholic Energy Drink Story

Alcohol is everywhere, and as a new student, of age or not, you’re bound to run into it. When you’re broke, you’re broke, and trust me—the lower your funds, the lowlier the beverage.  This year, the new(ish) trend is alcoholic energy drinks.

Alcohol is everywhere, and as a new student, of age or not, you’re bound to run into it. When you’re broke, you’re broke, and trust me—the lower your funds, the lowlier the beverage.  This year, the new(ish) trend is alcoholic energy drinks. You’re going to run into them at every party no matter where you go. They’re cheap, fruity-tasting and really good for studying—if you don’t want to do too well on your exams. That said, know your enemy! If you’re going to be faced with a variety of these at your next get-together, it’s best to know what you’re up against so that you may bow to peer pressure as an educated and sophisticated man or woman.

Sparks, Sparks Plus, et al.

The proverbial Model-T of the AED world, McKRC’s baby—and now the bastard child of Miller’s strong and noble beer empire—is a very drinkable brew. Not surprisingly, compared to other AEDs, Sparks packs the least amount of punch at 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Sparks pours a slightly frothy urine yellow with a hint of a head, and tastes remarkably similar to energy drinks that contain no alcohol whatsoever. What a novel concept! If Sparks tastes like sparkling water with some “energy powder” sprinkled in, Sparks Plus tastes like sparkling water with even more powder, at 7 percent ABV. Finally, Sparks Red, upping the ante at 8 percent ABV, is still surprisingly potable. I’d put Sparks Plus as the company’s best effort, though a four-pack of Sparks tips the price scales at as much as $7! Bad form, considering that you can get much more for much less elsewhere. I’d say Sparks and its ilk are more reserved for casual drinking—a gateway AED, if you will—but nobody, and I mean nobody, drinks this stuff at a mixer.

Tilt, Tilt Green

Not surprisingly, Sparks’ first usurper comes from Anheuser-Busch/InBev, a company that owns the rights to and bottles about a zillion beers. Its offerings come in two flavors: Tilt and Tilt Green (real original, guys). The original Tilt looks and tastes exactly, and I mean exactly like original Sparks, which gives me huge amounts of faith in chemistry as a science but does nothing exceptional for my palate. At 6.6 percent, it has an edge on Sparks original. However, Tilt really takes out the middleman with their second offering and goes straight to 8 percent ABV with Tilt Green, which, shockingly, is green and looks almost exactly like antifreeze. It pours the same as Sparks and all, but what’s this? Tilt Green is actually delicious, and two or three at the most will do the trick for most anybody. At 8 percent ABV, Tilt was surely the leader early in the AED game, but will it survive further installments of the technology? Yes, Tilt is still around and has expanded its line and upped its ABV percentages a smidge. However, the cans look like bad tribal tattoos now, much like Joose, which I’ll cover later.


When the original orange-flavored Joose came out, it boasted a then-unheard-of 9.9 percent ABV—a benchmark. On paper, this sounds relatively docile. Tilt Green is delicious, remember? And it’s only 1.9 percent ABV lower than Joose. And let’s be honest, the name is pretty lame. Via word of mouth, you’d likely never try Joose. You’d probably have no reason to if your friends brought Tilt Plus to whatever party you were at. However, if you went to the Plaid yourself and laid eyes on this monolith, you’d know you had to try it. Throwing caution to the wind, Joose gives you 9.9 percent ABV in a 23.5 ounce can. What’s more, it costs a little under three bucks. It sounds almost too good to be true—that is, until you taste it.

Clearly aimed at poor folk who just don’t care, Joose has a taste the polar opposite of its perfect “on paper” status. The orange Joose tastes like cleaning fluid, but is still strangely palatable. And at this price, who can refuse? When Joose came out with the rest of its flavors, the company truly came into its own. “Blue” and “Red” were next, and they dropped their ABV down to a flat 9 percent. Oh, but the taste! Blue Joose is heavenly—nay, kingly—at a price even a pauper can afford. Later incarnations of Joose would see them climb as high as 12 percent ABV (!), but how do they compare? Read on.

The Core

This stuff is meant for the manliest of men. There is embossed metal and bolts and all other kinds of construction stuff all over the can. Too bad it tastes like orange Joose drank out of some sweaty riveter’s hardhat. Foamy and gross. 10 percent ABV if you can stomach it, a bleached splotch on your hardwood floors/carpet/grass if you can’t. Pass.

Four Maxed

A new sheriff is in town, and this one contains all the usual suspects: Taurine, caffeine, ginseng and…wormwood oil? That’s right, the Drink Four brewing company out of good ol’ red-blooded Ohio have done the unthinkable—they’ve actually managed to put the same legendary crap that notoriously makes absinthe drinkers hallucinate—in an AED. What saints. Four Maxed cuts the crap and bumps the ABV percentage up to a flat 10 but cuts the ounces back down to a Sparks-like 16-ounce can. It comes in two flavors: grape and the all-encompassing “citrus.” They both pour like their respective flavored sodas, with the citrus looking the most like pee. Four Maxed, interestingly enough, has the biggest head thus far. What do they taste like? Unfortunately, DXM lovers will be right at home with Four Maxed grape, as the drink tastes like Dimetapp Elixir and ashes. The citrus kind fares no better, but is still a nose above the grape offering. The wormwood adds nothing except to make the imbiber want to cut off his or her ear just like Van Gogh did on absinthe.

Four Loko

The big daddy of them all. Four Loko really knocked it out of the park with this one. Songs have been written about it—lots of them—and for good reason. For starters, they cut the gimmicky wormwood oil out of it and bumped the ABV percentage up to a staggering 12. Then, it ditched the 16-ounce cans and went back to America’s size—23.5 ounces. Four Loko is, strangely enough, one of the most drinkable AEDs out there—second only to Tilt Plus—provided you stay away from the watermelon and blue raspberry flavors. Loko’s best offering is cranberry lemonade (I know, right) and is the best bang for your buck at $2.79. One will do the trick; two and it’s lights out. Look for the huge can in any weird camouflage color you’ve ever dreamed of.


Technically not an AED, a friend and I found this in a bush at McDonalds on 18th and West Burnside. It looks exactly like Joose. It tasted found.

Liquid Charge

Dabbling into literal territory, this AED used to have skulls and all other sorts of dangerous looking crap on it. The only thing dangerous is the taste. Stay away.

Read on, and learn the dark history behind alcohol’s black sheep…

I feel obligated to let the reader know that all beverages mentioned above should only be enjoyed (unless drinking Liquid Charge, orange Joose or Core—then it’s choked down) by responsible students who are OF AGE. This guide is for entertainment only, but Ma and Pa on Southwest 12th and Washington sells ’em cheaper, and lo, they’re on the streetcar. Man, parents are awesome.

The year 2002 was a golden period for drinkers and homeless people alike, in that those in charge of mandating everything you buy finally decided to put alcohol in the country’s fastest growing fad: energy drinks. Red Bull was launched in the U.S. in 1997. Five years? It sure took capitalism long enough to figure out that newly of-age consumers and our beloved derelicts want alcohol in everything.

Nothing has been safe from that style of marketing infusion—the southerners enjoy plates of bourbon chicken time and again. Rum raisin is a very popular variety of cake; and don’t even get me started on the Irish. When “Irish” is in front of anything, you best bet that you take the second word, and then just add alcohol of some kind.

But in 2002, the Sparks man cometh. Led by Bay Area company McKenzie River Corp., Sparks hit the street hard. And by hit the streets, I mean it really did—McKRC’s marketing plan relied largely on giving the stuff away to anyone who would take it. Cheap alcohol hadn’t seen marketing like that since Thunderbird wine cornered the homeless market back in the 1950s. Thunderbird invented a jingle that flooded convenience stores and other questionable bodegas, where it became emblazoned into the minds of impressionable transients. Later, unmarked Thunderbird vehicles would drive down back alleys calling out the jingle. When its first part—”What’s the word?”—was uttered, a homeless person who yelled out “Thunderbird!” would get a bottle of Thunderbird thrown to them. Building on such hallowed business practices as these, McKRC all but created an entire new way to get drunk, and thusly, a small but loyal following.

Sparks got the drop on so many people that Anheuser-Busch—McKRC’s fiercest and most wealthy competitor—took three years to duplicate it and try to grab some of the same market with its Tilt. David and Goliath soon turned into Goliath and Goliath when Miller bought Sparks in 2006.

As luck would have it, several smaller companies, with no loyal fanbase to tarnish, have decided to take the Sparks idea and expand on it—and by expand, I mean add a bunch more alcohol, and give the consumer more for less. Companies like Olde English and Schlitz did it to good old-fashioned American lager in the early ’40s and 1999 respectively—and thankfully, companies like United Brands and Phusion Projects (with their names deeply rated in epicurean ventures) are doing it right now. Of course, Miller and Anheuser-Busch tried to step their games up, to no avail.

Wouldn’t you know it though, American entrepreneurship isn’t as dignified as it once was. Alcoholic energy drinks, or “alcopops” to those eligible for AARP membership, have come under fire for a variety of reasons. One pretty obvious reason is that the combination of alcohol (a depressant), and caffeine (a stimulant), form quite the contradictory cocktail inside the human body. Fair enough, fair enough. However, another gripe is one easily avoided—the brightly-colored cans appeal far more to underage drinkers—the “extreme sports” types, the kind of folks who typically buy regular energy drinks. Easily rectified, right? These drinks are now required to state just how alcoholic they are in several places.

Further roadblocks:

Many places in downtown Portland have taken all alcoholic energy drinks off the shelves. A clerk at Peterson’s on the Galleria MAX stop tells me that the OLCC offers tax breaks to any business that will voluntarily NOT carry any type of alcoholic energy drink. However, two brave, brave businesses downtown carry them—and because they’re the only downtown outlets that do, they carry every type imaginable. Those businesses are Young’s Mart on Southwest Fourth and Alder, and Ma and Pa Market on Southwest 12th and Washington. Outside of the downtown area, these drinks are readily available at any 7-Eleven or, if you’re a local shopper, Plaid Pantry. The third gripe, and one which is more of a suggestion than a gripe requiring litigation, is that they cost very little, all the while getting the consumer absolutely obliterated.  This is where you, the OF-AGE impoverished college student, come in.

Utilizing these given avenues, I’ve taken the guesswork out of the issue for you and painstakingly reviewed several of the alcoholic energy drinks (henceforth abbreviated AEDs, senior citizens be damned) available in the Portland downtown area at the aforementioned establishments.