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Phusion Projects Interview: Four Loko Creators Admit It Tastes Like Crap, Deny All Else

No amount of ice can freeze out the taste of fermented Windex
No amount of ice can freeze out the taste of fermented Windex

Finally, the wise men speak!

Jeff Wright, Jaisen Freeman and Chris Hunter -- that notorious trio behind the cultural phenomenon turned public enemy that was caffeinated alcopop "killer" Four Loko -- defend their product in a March interview with Fix, their first commentary since the FDA crackdown.

It's a four-page overdose of Loko biography, so, because we're almost more sick of hearing about the stuff than we are of drinking it, we've extracted the highlights. You're welcome!

• First, an idea of who these crazies really are, on the outside (not one is Latino, despite their baby's Cholo namesake):

Freeman (middle): "a hulking athlete with a Vin Diesel crew cut"

Wright (left): "a barrel-chested redhead with piercing blue eyes... stiff and nervous like a court-martialed corporal."

Hunter (right): "a smooth-talking charmer with a Tom Cruise grin... cool as a party host, which he in fact used to be."
Phusion Projects Interview: Four Loko Creators Admit It Tastes Like Crap, Deny All Else
The Fix

• Unsurprisingly, they invented the drink because they themselves wanted to get supremely effed up, and showed an affinity for fooling zonked college kids into buying up their novelties early on:

Four Loko began with an idea first hatched by these three former college buds when they were still in their 20s. Long before they imagined launching their own brand, Wright, Freeman and Hunter had in fact been serious consumers of caffeine mixed with alcohol--at frat parties and club nights at Ohio State University. "We were our own target market," Freeman says.

In the late '90s, when they were still in college, Red Bull and vodka was the hot new concoction on campus. But before the distinctive silver-and-blue can's ubiquity, Hunter and Wright, who lived together at the Kappa Sigma house, tried to sell an original Thai version of bottled caffeine to other guys in the house. "We told everyone we were importing the stuff from abroad," recalls Wright, still amused by the deceit. "But we were buying it at the Asian grocery store down the street and selling it to our fraternity brothers at five dollars a pop."

• Most amusingly, they admit to all individually recognizing the Loko tasted terrible at first, but not having the heart to tell each other:

At the time, cherry-flavored vodkas were hot, so the boys decided to go with a cherry-berry flavor profile--ordering up samples from a flavor house in southern California. "It was awful," Wright says. "We all lied to each other, and said it tasted good. We just wanted to get something on the shelf."

• And, well, it never really stopped tasting terrible, despite a makeover:

Giving it one last shot, in 2007 they decided to reformulate, ditching the wormwood and focusing instead on the flavor of their beer--and on its alcohol content. Grape vodkas were now in vogue, and so the team came out with a new grape-flavored drink, amped up the alcohol to 10% and tweaked the name to Four Maxed. "We had increased the alcohol, and we had increased the flavor profile," Hunter explains. "It was maxed in many ways."

Even though the drink "tasted like Robutussin," Wright admits, the new product struck an immediate chord with consumers.

• The lightbulb moment for the drink's moniker was just as douchey as we thought. (Urban Dictionary's No. 3 theory is much more believable.)

Sitting in Freeman's kitchen one evening, the three pals began tossing around ideas for a new kind of beer and a new name to go with it. Freeman suggested fruit punch, which was one of the most popular flavors of Smirnoff Ice. "Let's call it Four Loko," he said. "It's a loko blend of fruit flavors." And as long as they were pushing the envelope, why not raise the alcohol content, too? Everyone agreed that was a fine idea.

• They're still denying the cutesy (yet, still, so freaking fugly) camouflage cans were marketed to the under-21 crowd, and that Loko was formulated to get its drinkers far more schwasted than your next ghetto drank. (BS.)

Although Wright, Freeman and Hunter knew that their drinks were surging on campuses, they insist that targeting college (or younger) students was never their intention. "We never had a conversation where we said we want people under 21 to drink our product," Freeman. ...

"We drank our product, we know it's like any other alcohol," says Hunter. "If you consume something responsibly you're fine, if you don't you're not fine, and I don't care if that's Bud Light, Smirnoff vodka or Four Loko.""

And, lastly, a plea for pity:

"Unfortunately we were pegged the bad guys," says Wright. "We tried to keep a low profile, but we couldn't stay out of the news. You've spent five years of your life, you've got 70 employees, selling a perfectly legal product, and all of a sudden you're under all this scrutiny. It's extremely stressful."

According to the Fix, Phusion is still making a good amount of money off caffeine-less Lokos -- which we find extremely hard to believe, especially given Snoop Dogg's days-sexier "Blast" is now on shelves, making all the 15-year-olds drool with rainbow gradients and bucking unicorns.

But you tell us: Is Loko still worth your $3 without that extra jolt? (You know, the one that makes you drive better. Really.) And did these three broskies, however douchey, deserve to be singled out for the bad decisions of a generation?

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]


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