Let's begin by stipulating that Irish coffee is brilliant: no sensible person can argue with caffeine and whiskey topped with cream and served in a warm mug. Irish coffee has been sold in bars since the 1950s, if not earlier, so it's surprising that it took so long for the alcohol industry to come up with a canned version of caffeinated booze called alcoholic energy drinks.
If you've never heard of such things, your kid probably has. Sold in tall, narrow cans, they carry teen-friendly names such as Sparks, four maXed and Joose. As with other "flavored malt beverages" (the conspicuously boring industry name for fizzy drinks like Mike's Hard Lemonade), alcoholic energy drinks taste like cheap soda--cloyingly sweet and bubbly, with only the mildest hint of booze, all the better for callow teen palates. But alcoholic energy drinks are much more dangerous than regular alcopops like Mike's. First of all, they contain an assortment of stimulants--mainly caffeine but also ingredients like guarana and taurine that can speed the central nervous system and mask alcohol's effects. And they have more booze than other single-serving beverages. Budweiser and Mike's are both about 5% alcohol; by comparison, Sparks Plus is 7%, and four maXed and Joose are about 10%.
The single-serving combination of a depressant (alcohol) and various stimulants carries a certain nightclub logic; Anheuser-Busch used to advertise its caffeinated beer, Bud Extra, with lines such as YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE 30 and WE SUGGEST 18-HOUR MASCARA. But public-health and law-enforcement officials--who have mounted an aggressive campaign against alcoholic energy drinks--worry that drinkers will assume they'll be wired enough to drive home after a long night of consuming these beverages. (More on the science later, but caffeine makes you feel only "wide-awake drunk," as researchers have put it, not actually less impaired.) The alcoholism-prevention community had been startled by the speed with which the caffeinated cocktail of Red Bull and vodka became a bar staple across the U.S. and Europe in the early 2000s, and many activists were determined to prevent alcoholic energy drinks from achieving a similar cultural foothold. "At least with Red Bull and vodka, you have two component parts that are mixed at a bar," says Judy Walsh-Jackson of the California Coalition on Alcopops and Youth. "These alcopop energy drinks are sold at convenience stores, places where young kids are shopping, right next to regular energy drinks."
Last month the attorneys general in 11 states won an agreement from Anheuser-Busch to discontinue all its alcoholic energy drinks and pay $200,000 to the states. Among other concerns, the attorneys general had alleged that the company was marketing the drinks to minors. Anheuser-Busch denied it broke any laws. As investigations continue into other makers of alcoholic energy drinks, Miller Brewing issued a statement that it is standing by Sparks, the No. 1 alcoholic energy drink; in June, Miller's parent company reported that the Sparks brand had "delivered strong full-year, double-digit growth." Likewise, United Brands said it has no plans to change the marketing or policies regarding Joose.
Marketing concerns aside, alcoholic energy drinks raise scientific questions: Does caffeine counteract the effects of alcohol? Or does it make drinking even more dangerous? Researchers have consistently found that caffeine won't keep you from getting drunk. In fact, from a psychological perspective, drinking caffeine with your alcohol is much riskier than drinking alcohol alone. One of the fascinating things about how humans process alcohol is that we have at least some capacity to overcome its effects by sheer force of will. Mark Fillmore, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, has found that study volunteers who are warned that an alcoholic drink will highly impair their performance on a psychomotor test actually do better on the test than people who are given the same drink but no information about impairment. In other words, at least in a lab setting, those who are led to believe they're about to get truly blotto end up not letting themselves get so blotto. They don't perform as well as sober people, but they perform a lot better than the average drinker.
Fillmore's research implies that mixing stimulants in alcoholic beverages sends a dangerous message: Don't worry, the stimulants will protect you. In a 2002 Journal of Studies on Alcohol paper, Fillmore and his colleagues demonstrated this point: people who expected caffeine in their booze to do the compensating work for them scored significantly worse on psychomotor tests than did a group told that caffeine would have no effect. The latter group controlled themselves more.
Alcohol functions in your body pretty much the same whether you mix it with caffeine or not. The problem is, you will feel better if caffeine is present. A 2006 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that people who consumed energy drinks with alcohol had significantly less dry mouth and headache than those who drank only alcohol. They also perceived their motor coordination to be better--even though it wasn't.
Alcoholic energy drinks are a crime against taste--but worse, they trick your brain into believing you're not as drunk as you are. Bottom line: have a real beer instead. If your beverage of choice carries a silly name like Joose, you're probably too young to drink anyway.
FLAVOR The citrusy taste reminded one online reviewer of orange Kool-Aid
ALCOHOL It has nearly twice the booze of the same amount of Budweiser
MARKETING This hip-looking "malternative" is sold in convenience stores
ENERGY The drink promises a triple boost via caffeine, taurine and ginseng