Four Loko vs. Buckfast

I have to admit, all of the drama around Four Loko, the fruity caffeinated malt liquor, has been really entertaining. From the horror stories, told gravely in the news and gleefully in the reader-contributed fourlokostories.com to the step-by-step instructions for concocting the soon-to-be-banned-in-four-states beverage at home–in this video below.

So with a can of Monster energy drink, five Jolly Rancher candies, a caffeine pill, some St. Ides malt liquor and a little bit sprite, you can create a reasonable substitute for Four Loko at home. Sort of. As one commenter pointed out in the original post on buzzfeed, you’d have to add a straight shot of vodka or something to equal the alcohol content of Four Loko. Another reader noted that Four Loko has 700 calories.

But what is Four Loko, and why is it about to be banned in New York, Washington, Michigan and Oklahoma? Four Loko, called “blackout in a can” by the media, was created by three Ohio State University students in about 2005. The 12% alcohol malt liquor drinks come in a variety of fruit flavors (grape, watermelon, blueberry, etc.) in large 16 or 24oz. cans. The four stands for four main ingredients: alcohol, caffeine, taurine, and guarana–the last three of which are found in most other energy drinks, including Red Bull. What makes Four Loko and other similar products enticing to binge drinkers is the high-alcohol/high-caffeine content (a 24oz. can of Four Loko has 135mg of caffeine, while 24 ounces of Coca Cola has 70). Detractors say it’s dangerous because it stimulates drinkers to drink more. Critics of the ban say so did mixing Red Bull with vodka. The company has responded by offering to sell a non-caffeinated version in certain states.

Now, this has all happened before in Scotland with an even more bizarre beverage called Buckfast. It’s a sweet “tonic wine” with caffeine that has been made by Benedictine monks for more than 100 years. It was originally conceived as a medication, but it’s been popular among teenagers in Scotland for decades. Buckfast is 15% alcohol and has about 140mg caffeine per 750ml bottle, a standard wine bottle size.

When I tried it in Scotland in the 1990s, its reputation was much like that of 40oz. bottles of malt liquor here: it’s a quick, cheap, unclassy way to get drunk. My friends drank it half as a lark, daring me to try it and not get belligerent. I did, and I was fine, but as with Four Loko, stories of drunken antics abounded.

According to a great New York Times piece in February, Buckfast really is linked to an increase in crime and general belligerence:

In a survey last year of 172 prisoners at a young offenders’ institution, 43 percent of the 117 people who drank alcohol before committing their crimes said they had drunk Buckfast. In a study of litter in a typical housing project, 35 percent of the items identified were Buckfast bottles. And the police in the depressed industrial district of Strathclyde recently told a BBC program that the drink had been mentioned in 5,638 crime reports between 2006 and 2009 (the bottle was used as a weapon in 114 of them).

And all this from a product made by gentle monks. The BBC Scotland did a 30 minute investigative piece in January called “The Buckfast Code.”

Buckfast is said to be involved in about 70 percent of assaults in Scotland, said the BBC. Four Loko, a relatively new drink in a new American category, seems tame by comparison, causing us only to hurt ourselves. Buckfast, to my knowledge, is not available in the New York area. I’ve looked.

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