The Life and Times of the Vodka Red Bull

The rare cocktail in which the mixer costs more than the spirit, "Liquid Cocaine" was, in its heyday, as controversial as it was popular.

I started my typical Saturday nights just out of college, in 2003, pregaming with my roommates. I’d watch a few episodes of “Fear Factor,” put on my best “going-out” button-up and trek to a row of meat-market bars in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. The speakers would blast whatever Lil Jon-produced song was popular that week and I’d order Vodka Red Bulls at $10 each—a small price to pay for a full night of false bravado.

I was no outlier. In the early aughts, the Vodka Red Bull was also the preferred drink of hipsters dancing to Peaches and Bloc Party; Manhattan-based bankers, brokers and lawyers; even Prince Harry, who enjoyed it at upscale South Kensington bottle-service clubs. While it’s universally mocked today by the same set of night-dwellers, you’ll have a difficult time finding a cocktail that’s been more consumed—and controversial—in the last 20 years.

It’s near-impossible to figure out who was the first genius to combine vodka and the world’s most popular energy drink. That doesn’t mean people haven’t tried to take credit for it. Even the trail of Wikipedia revisions shows dueling editors trying to get their un-cited claims into official record. (The current incarnation credits “futurologist” Benjamin Reed, but there’s no information to back that up.) From the moment Red Bull was introduced by the Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz, in 1987, “it was mixed with alcohol by revelers intent on bleariness without weariness,” noted former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni.

First sold at upscale Austrian ski resorts, the brand tried to associate itself with extreme sports, sponsoring the 1988 Dolomitenmann—an Ironman-like event featuring paragliding and kayaking. An idea began to take root that it could aid in playing harder, then studying harder and, naturally, partying harder.

The drink initially struggled upon entering the U.S. in 1997. Exploring all possible avenues, the North American marketing team saw an opportunity in San Francisco’s rave and club scene, recalls party promoter Vlad Cood. When his friends, Christopher and Carlton Solle, were preparing to open a tiny “party” bar called Butter in the SoMa district in 1999, he introduced them to Red Bull’s reps; the brand, in turn, offered the duo $50,000 to feature their product on the menu.

“They all got drunk and creative, and came up with these funny drinks, kinda trashy,” Cood recalls. “All the mixers came out of cans. Dr. Pepper, Squirt… SunnyD, Tang,” and had evocative names like Prom Night Punch and the Bitchin’ Camaro. The most popular drink was the R.V. (which stands for “Red Bull Vodka”). Eight dollars got you an entire eight-ounce Red Bull mixed with two ounces of Svedka, slapped together by the bar’s self-described “intoxicologists” and served over ice in a 16-ounce glass Mason jar.

“Because of Red Bull’s investment into the branding of the drink, it was heavily pushed all the time, and was established as the signature drink of Butter,” explains Cood. He claims it spread outward from there, mostly because the top promoters in San Francisco all had some tie to Butter—whether they were investors themselves or bar regulars.

“If not for Butter’s place and role in the community, it’s unlikely the R.V. would have blown up the way it did,” Cood believes. “That’s why Red Bull bought their way in. To get in bed with the scene.”

While Butter took to calling it the R.V., a series of other, more fanciful names—the Vod Bull, Raging Bull, Speedball, Liquid Cocaine and the Heart Attack Special, to name a few—proliferated, but never quite caught on. Eventually it became known, simply, as Vodka Red Bull or Red Bull Vodka. 

There was, of course, some cognitive dissonance at play as Red Bull’s cans clearly stated, “not recommended…to be mixed with alcohol.” That didn’t mean the company was going to ignore the emerging phenomenon. As Jim Bailey, former vice president of marketing for Red Bull Canada, glibly noted in a 2005 interview, “How the consumer sort of adapts or interprets the product is in their hands.” Eschewing traditional advertising—and never once officially promoting the idea of combining it with alcohol—Red Bull instead enlisted unpaid student brand managers, giving them cases to distribute around campus. The students could do with it what they pleased. (Red Bull still refuses to acknowledge the drink, and declined to offer comment on this story.)

Throughout the first part of the decade, you were as likely to hear an order for a Vodka Red Bull as you were a Rum and Coke or Jack and Ginger. It wasn’t just in dives and frat houses, either; you could find the drink in a crusty Irish pub as easily as you could an upscale golf clubhouse or nightclub. Every sort of drinking establishment had the capabilities to make the drink, and willingly did so.

It is the rare cocktail where the mixer costs more than the spirit, which enabled major upcharges over, say, a vodka-soda. “We called it ‘liquid gold,’” Cood notes. A can cost about three dollars at the time, so pricy that Eric “ET” Tecosky, a long-time Los Angeles bartender who worked at Club LUSH in the early-aughts, claims it was a fireable offense for employees to be caught drinking it during their shift.

Soon enough, TGI Friday’s took the drink and savvily linked it with the “it” drink from the previous era, the Sex on the Beach. The “Diddy on the Beach” featured vodka and Red Bull plus Malibu rum and assorted fruit. Dave & Buster’s started to offer an entire Vodka Red Bull menu, with such varieties as Red Bull Sugarfree and Absolut and Red Bull Yellow Edition (“Tropical”) with mango vodka. Similarly, Red Bull imitations started to infiltrate the bar scene. There was Roaring Lion, which could be hooked up to the soda gun and was, thus, 60 percent cheaper than Red Bull. And Rockstar, which was released in 2001 in 16-ounce cans (double the size of Red Bull) and offered “liver-rejuvenating” milk thistle along with the same dose of caffeine.

But if these were the halcyon days of energy and ethanol, there was a darker side to the era. As early as 2001, there was a growing fear around the drink causing deaths: “Red Bull cocktails giving wings, sending some to heaven,” read one Sunday Times headline. Though much of the alarmism was unproven, the cocktail also led to two decades-worth of peer-reviewed papers with titles like, “The Effect of Energy Drinks on the Urge to Drink Alcohol in Young Adults.” While the fear of a cardiac arrest on the dance floor didn’t frighten off many drinkers, another thing eventually did: the rise of the bro.

By the time the 2000s came to a close, ordering a Vodka Red Bull came with a scarlet letter. Google the drink’s name with “frat” and you’ll get no shortage of results linking it to college campuses and the variations that proliferated there, like the “The Snorkel” or “Y Bomb” (the drink, shotgunned). One 2011 article on “Jersey Shore cocktail recipes” also offers a Grenade Launcher, a riff on the Jägerbomb, where you toss a shot glass of Jägermeister into a glass of Red Bull and chug. The common belief became that only bros (or Snooki) drink Vodka Red Bull.

Yet the drink endures. Having survived an upstart industry of now-banned canned alcoholic energy drinks (Sparks, Four Loko), it’s still available nearly anywhere you can get a drink. However, there’s no denying that it’s been relegated to the place where we hide all the bad things from the early days of the new millennium, from frosted tips to “My Humps.”

At Butter, however, the Red Bull logo still hangs proudly on the bar’s outside shingle, and the R.V. still sells solidly nearly 20 years later. Like going to the Mission and getting a burrito at La Taqueria or throwing back an Anchor Steam at Swan Oyster Depot, it’s become a San Francisco tradition. “Here, you don’t drink it because it’s ironic,” notes Cood, who took over as owner in 2009. “You drink it because it’s iconic.”

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