Rarely has a group of drinks provoked as much controversy as energy drink cocktails have these days.
These combinations of sweet ingredients that include stimulants such as taurine, glucuronalactone, caffeine, guarana, and L-carnitine, are regularly mixed with alcohol, a known depressant, which can produce frightening results.
The stimulants mask the ability-impairing effects of the alcohol and also allow consumers to drink more because they’re not sleepy.
This can lead to dangerous situations, says George Creal Jr., a lawyer in Atlanta who handles cases involving impaired driving, and points to a University of Florida study that says consumers are three times as likely to get drunk and four times as likely to drive drunk if they drink energy drink cocktails than if they don’t drink them.
But that being said, energy drinks are a good business opportunity for restaurants: They keep people there longer, buying more, says Tom Pirko, president of BEVMARK, a company based in Santa Ynez, California, that advises food and beverage industries.
He doesn’t expect anything to change regarding energy drink cocktails.
“I think we may have passed the point at which the controversy tipped to action. I think there will be educational efforts, but I don’t think the government will spend their money going out there to try and curb people from drinking energy drinks.
“So I think energy drinks will continue to grow, especially energy shots, and the alcohol tie-in is still alive. That’s how the business started so we’re just continuing along with what started the drink in the first place. We are a medicated culture that wants to be stimulated—with beer or marijuana or caffeine.”
Regardless, energy drinks are the hot ticket among the 20-somethings who are eager for new flavors, trendy drinks and something that will allow them to party all night.
The Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar chain in Dallas has been serving energy drink cocktails for several years.
At first, they were popular late at night, says spokesman Randy Steinbrenner, but they’ve migrated toward being an anytime drink.
The restaurant serves two of the cocktails: The first is a Red Bull Rita, which Steinbrenner says is “a niche margarita, skewed a little younger; very similar to a margarita but has a little extra flavor as well as the energy boost that comes along with a Red Bull.”
This cocktail is served with the can of Red Bull to expose the restaurant’s partnership with the brand. It’s also made with good alcohol—1800 Silver tequila and Cointreau orange liqueur. “We have a line of eight or nine margaritas, so this rounds out that category,” Steinbrenner says.
The second cocktail is the Blistering Bull, made with Three Olives vodka, DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker schnapps and Red Bull. “It has a kick and is drunk by more females than males, since they gravitate towards the vodka and the apple,” Steinbrenner says.
The drinks go well with food but are good alone,
Steinbrenner says, and are promoted on Boston’s cocktail menu and its Facebook page as well as through the servers.
Two popular energy drink cocktails at De Santos in New York City’s West Village are the Pucker Punch (rum, grapefruit juice, lychee juice, fresh lime juice, champagne, Liquid Lightning energy drink) and the Spa Cooler (simple syrup, cucumber slices, mint, VeeV grain alcohol, lime juice, Liquid Lightning), which are both $13.
The drinks, says bar manager Tino Bracker, have become far more popular this summer as customers look for cool new ways to fight the heat.
As summer specials, these drinks are promoted primarily by word of mouth, through the bartenders and servers.
In St. Louis, Vin de Set restaurant is managing to serve what it calls energy drinks, yet avoids all the controversy.
The restaurant, which is described as an American twist on French cuisine, serves cocktails containing coconut water, one of the fashionable drinks of the past year or two.
The restaurant has tried to make energy drink cocktails healthier, says Ivy Magruder, executive chef and general manager. “Coconut water is a natural energy drink, and it has more electrolytes than Gatorade and more potassium than bananas. It’s the natural energy drink.”
The restaurant mixes it with St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur, and soda water. It calls this the St. Germain cocktail and it’s served “up” in a martini glass.
It’s a delicate and subtle cocktail that the restaurant sells for $7. “Coconut water is so popular right now, and people know what it is. It’s not creamy at all and has the viscosity of juice so it’s not too thick, and the elderflower comes through and predominates the cocktail,” Magruder says.
Another popular cocktail at Vin de Set is the CocoNuts, made with coconut water, pineapple juice, and coconut rum.
And the third energy drink cocktail is simply champagne mixed with coconut water. This constitutes a third of cocktails served at Sunday brunch and is another $7 cocktail. It’s sold by waiters at brunch, and is also popular on the evening menus, Magruder says.
This champagne cocktail “is drunk by everyone and their mother,” he says. “We promote a leisurely brunch, and it’s popular across the board on all of our brunch demographic. It’s for the indecisive drinker. It’s a fun, crisp, cocktail, but it also has the comfort flavors.”
Despite Vin de Set’s cocktail being drunk by everyone, typically energy drinks are popular with a younger crowd.
The consumers who were starting to drink when energy drinks hit the market are still fans of these products, and so are younger drinkers. Magruder says Vin de Set’s cocktails are popular with the 25 to 32 age bracket.
“They start off with Red Bulls when they first drink, so their palate is along those lines. But their palate gets more sophisticated, and they have more disposable income. And these drinks are certainly more female-oriented.”
At De Santos, Pucker Punch tends to be more popular with the female drinkers, as is often the case with lychee beverages, Bracker says. But the Spa Cooler has seen strong following across the spectrum.
“These cocktails aren’t for the banker or fashion assistant who comes straight to De Santos after a 12-hour workday and needs a little boost to stay awake through dinner,” he says. “The guests ordering these cocktails are looking for a delicious and refreshing beverage to toast a beautiful summer evening in the West Village of New York.”
The energy isn’t the focus of drinking them, Bracker asserts. “People drink these cocktails because of the unique ingredients and extraordinary flavors. The amount of energy drink in each cocktail is enough to impact the taste of the drink, but not nearly enough to truly energize someone.”
Steinbrenner agrees: The cocktails aren’t just drunk for energy, he says. “I think people used to drink them for the energy when they were first released, but I think that they’ve become more mainstream and drunk for the flavor as well as the extra boost.”
The drinks are popular year-round, Magruder says, “but we sell more at the bar than we do at the tables themselves. So we see our business shift as we sell more later in the evening.”
And at De Santos most people order them either earlier, around happy hour, or later in the night after they’ve had dinner and decided to enjoy the evening a little longer.
And as for the controversy surrounding the drinks, restaurants let the customers make the decisions for themselves.
Bracker explains: “With or without energy drinks, we always promote responsible alcohol consumption. While our staff and management are kept up to date regarding all warnings, the amount of energy drink in our cocktails is not substantial enough to be cause for concern. If it were, they would not even be included on our menu.”
Red Bull, Rockstar and Monster Energy may be the big names in energy drinks but the market is flooded with many products, several being released by small companies.
The Matchbox, a new bar in Denver, Colorado, uses iX MiXer in its energy drink cocktails. While iX MiXer is similar to an energy drink, its manufacturers say it can also be classified as a functional beverage.
iX MiXer is a naturally flavored, caffeine-free, lightly sweetened, non-alcoholic mixer. Its maker claims it helps the body sustain energy through its unique combination of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.
Nick Rolston is a bartender at The Matchbox and also one of the founders of iX MiXer.
“iX MiXer is designed specifically for cocktail use,” Rolston says. “It provides sustained and natural energy and keeps you hydrated while you drink it. It helps prevent hangovers.”
The bar serves around 30 cocktails containing iX MiXer, and Rolston says he probably devises a new one each week. The two flavors (citrus and berry) are light and versatile, so there are endless possibilities with them, he adds.
One of the most popular beverages is the iXarita. “It’s our version of a margarita,” Rolston says. “We mix tequila with citrus iX, which adds some carbonation and cuts down on the sugariness and syrup.”
They also serve flavored vodka with both iX MiXer varieties for simple drinks.
These cocktails are attracting mostly younger professionals, Rolston says. “It’s people who like to go out and be social, but also have careers and need to be productive the next day.”
He says drinkers at The Matchbox are consuming these cocktails first of all for the hydration they offer and secondly for taste. Customers learn about the hydration through bartenders and servers, Rolston explains.
As for the negative press these drinks receive, he says that iX MiXer provides a really good alternative. “I’ve noticed that the trend/fad is fading and people are realizing that energy drinks (stimulant) and alcohol (depressant) isn’t good for you. We’re trying to be something that people can transition to.”
Another new niche brand on the market is DNA Brands Inc., based in Boca Raton, Florida.
The company launched its first drinks in 2006 in a 16-ounce can. The drinks come in four flavors: lemon lime, citrus, sugar-free cranrazberry, and sugar-free citrus.
The drinks are mostly served as aperitifs in restaurants, says spokesman Geoff Armstrong. But he adds, “We have made our flavors less medicinal than some of these drinks are, so they do go well with dinner.”
DNA Brands provides a list of cocktails that can be made with its drinks, including the Creamsicle (DNA citrus and vanilla vodka) and the Power Margarita (tequila and DNA lemon lime).