Back in the Jägerbomb-slamming broski era, demand for energy drinks surged, with nearly 200 new products released in 2006 alone. "Energy drinks started as a really niche beverage, and you had this dramatic growth in sales as a result of widespread distribution from larger beverage companies," says Cara Wilking, JD, a former public health attorney and expert in food and beverage law and marketing. As a point of reference for how quickly the trend swung upward, she points to how The World of Caffeine, published in 2001 and known as a definitive text, doesn't mention energy drinks at all.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the action. Hulk Hogan had an energy drink. Red Bull started doing more and more events. Monster tripled its sales in just six years. To stand out in the increasingly crowded market, you had to make a statement. Enter Cocaine. "I chose the name because I knew it would be controversial, and controversy sells," James T. Kirby, the founder of Redux Beverages, told the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, California, in 2006. His company peddled the product with face-melting slogans ("Speed in a Can," "Liquid Cocaine," "Cocaine -- Instant Rush") and in slim, red cans with "Cocaine" spelled out in a jagged, dusty-white font clearly intended to evoke cut lines of its powdery namesake. When the drink was made available to the public, the cans cheekily touted the beverage as "The Legal Alternative."
"This is probably one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns of the mid-2000s" says my high-school energy-drinking buddy Zach, now a prosecutor who litigates violent felonies. The messaging around Cocaine never directly addressed the taste of the liquid inside -- a pink substance called Spicy Hot -- which only makes the hype surrounding its launch more impressive. "It tasted like shit!" Zach says.
Like me, he'd been curious about the drink when we first heard about it in 2007, and we all quickly learned that it tasted like a cross between cough medicine and low-calorie Gatorade Fruit Punch -- plus it burned your throat on the way down. The sugary aftertaste lingered for more than a half hour afterward, even after taking just a few sips. Zach tells me that he'd encountered Cocaine at a drive-through convenience store in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as recently as 2009 or 2010. "Sure enough, they had it advertised," he says, "and I suddenly [had a flashback] to high school, and said, 'Do you guys have any of that stuff?'" The clerk even served a can to him with a straw. "I don't know if that was part of the ad campaign or not, but how perfect was that?"