John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The corner stores near my home in Oakland, California, carry the craziest, cheapest alcoholic beverages I've ever seen. So I decided to try them all.
Having grown up in the fertile cheap-beer crescent of Virginia, I learned early to appreciate the qualities of bush-league booze. Much of my dumb youth was spent in the company of gaseous swill, whether it be 40s of Schlitz Blue Bull inside abandoned houses or piss-warm Natty Light in the parking lot of Ozzfest. To this day I still prefer the less-fine alcoholic things in life, as you might discover if you buy me a goblet of Belgian Tripel and I return the favor with a glass brimming with clean, refreshing PBR.
So imagine my delight upon moving to Oakland, California, to find a paradise for unfamiliar, bottom-barrel hooch. My East Coast corner-store vocabulary consists of words like Hurricane, Icehouse, and Mickey's Big Mouth; here stores trade in an entirely different language of "BuzzBallz," "Twisted Shotz," and "CAMO Black Ice." These inexpensive, high-octane, frequently radioactive-colored and cologne-scented drinks land in Oakland from all over the world – New York, Las Vegas, New Zealand. And then they get decimated by a thirsty populace that must have sheet-metal taste buds and a Superman-like imperviousness to hangovers.
With the final, sad demise of Four Loko fresh in my mind, naturally I had to try these unfamiliar snorts. So I made a tour of the neighborhood corner stores and convened a tasting panel of friends. The results are summarized below, including zero-to-10 ratings for each beverage's drinkability and its Cash To Floor (C2F) value, defined as a ratio of the price of the drink over its ability to knock you to the ground.
Viniq Shimmery Liqueur, $10.99
C2F: 2. It's 20 percent alcohol but not exactly cheap, and downing the whole bottle may result in vomiting up streams of what looks like glitter-pen ink.
Drinkability: 2. A momentary blast of what might be passion fruit is incinerated by the burn of pure alcohol. And despite the company saying the twinkly stuff is a "food safe pearl color" used in candies and icing, you can't help but worry if it carries side effects, like turning your skin as brilliantly metallic as the Tin Man.
Above, behold Viniq in its natural habitat, the jacuzzi. "Captivate your friends with the drink that shimmers when you shake it" is the tagline of this alarming tipple, made by a company near Fresno, California. It's a combo of vodka, Moscato, and "natural fruit flavors," though they register on the palate as if made by a robot using only assumptions on what fruit tastes like. But hey, you're not buying Viniq for deliciousness, you're buying it for the sparkle-sparkle and it delivers:
Viniq is so enriched with ballerness that if you rub it, a little Tom Haverford genie pops out to grant three swag-related wishes. Cocktail suggestions (for real) include the "A-List," the "High Roller," and "Oh Snap!" Heck, the liquid even shows a distinct molecular attraction to Lil Jon. Find it at your neighborhood bodega when the product launches nationally in September.
Tasters' notes: "It tastes like a sexist man's version of what he thinks women would like to drink."
CAMO Black Ice, $1.75
C2F: 10. After consuming one of these babies, you are good to go.
Drinkability: 3. Tastes like strong malt liquor, just ramped up by 1,000 percent.
The Camo Brewing Company of Nevada doesn't spend any money on advertising, so you know it must be doing something right to have its brews sold in out-of-state markets. And by "right," I mean dirt-cheap prices and a 10.5 percent alcoholic wallop as effective as a coal shovel to the head. DJ Drank needs to come out of retirement to make a mixtape singing the praises of this amazing stuff.
CAMO Black Ice got a score of 54 ("awful") from Beer Advocate, whose raters say it smells like "Manischewitz wine mixed with kerosene, some diesel, and a hearty side of lawnmower engine oil/gasoline combination," and that it "serves a purpose i guess, but not a purpose i hope to ever have." That's exactly what its creators are going for, according to this interview with company president Bob Williams III:
Williams admits he’s never tried pleasing critics. He produces a cheap product for people who want a strong taste and a quick buzz. (Black Extra clocks in at 12.2 percent alcohol and costs just over a dollar per 24-ounce can.) "It's got twice the barley malt and grain of normal malt liquors, and the brewing process takes longer," Williams says. "It’s a unique category that appeals to college students and the ethnic market. It’s definitely skewed toward the male market."
I drank half the can and my stomach was knotting up like a happy python strangling a rat. Unfortunately, this guy stole everything else I wanted to write about CAMO Black Ice.
C2F: 8. Despite their friendly crayon colors, these 20-percent devil orbs are an instant trip to blotto town. Strap a bunch to a shoulder-slung bandolier and you're ready for an evening of window breaking, public exposure, and eluding the state patrol at speeds of 130 mph.
Drinkability: Zero. The taste of all three BuzzBallz sampled – Lotta Colada, Cran Blaster, and OJ Screamer – were all unfavorably compared to cough medicine. The clinical fragrance also sticks to your insides like glue, as in the morning a few of us had potpourri-scented BuzzBurpz.
These neon-tinted spheres, supposedly invented by a high-school teacher, are allegedly made with real fruit juice but came across tasting like a blend of corn and cough syrups. "It's like someone took 100 Emergen-Cs and melted them down," is how one of the tasters put it. "I'm curious if this is cheaper or more expensive than cough syrup, because if it's more expensive, I would just drink cough syrup."
You know there's something wrong with a drink when even university kids won't touch it. "I think it’s hell in a bottle, and not good to be around a college campus," says one student. Note that the OJ Screamer is not pictured above because it fell into the hot tub; there was general agreement that the heat made it more tolerable, moving the flavor profile from Robitussin to fruit juice contaminated with a little turpentine.
The Club Mudslide, $3.50
C2F: 5. If getting smashed is your objective, it's going to be hard (and sad to watch) cracking can after can of The Club for its meager 10-percent payload.
Drinkability: 7. This brownish, tongue-coating slurry won the critic's Gold Medal for the night.
The people behind The Club's line of premixed cocktails have been making these things since the 1890s, and they've got the formula down. Their mudslide is an inoffensive, nondairy creamer-based version of the Kahlua-and-vodka cocktail, sort of like a spiked Starbucks Doubleshot. It provides enough satisfaction to make you curious about the makers' 1970s Malcolm Hereford's Cow, a now-retired product featuring a "flavored, 30-proof alcoholic milk drink that was mostly popular with women and college students regardless of gender."
Marley's Mellow Mood Green Tea with Honey, $2??
C2F: Zero. It's non-alcoholic, though one person on Facebook complains its trademark mix of herbs made him "sleepy."
Drinkability: 9. After all that came before, sipping the Marley was like enjoying Napa's finest virgin grape juice.
Mellow Mood, made in partnership with the family of the late reggae singer, was prominently displayed in one liquor store but turned out to be a sample not for sale. Nevertheless, the clerk chased us into the parking lot to offer it for a couple of bucks. And thank Jah, because it provided the perfect palate cleanser between servings of boldly corrosive liquor. Its combination of green tea and chamomile, lemon balm, and hops was not at all offensive – something that many other people must believe, as the drink has 675,000 likes on Facebook. The only way to improve this beverage would be to package each bottle with a strand of hair from Marley's dreads, so he and his die-hard fans could finally meld body and spirits.
Myx Fusions Moscato with Coconut, $10.99 for a four-pack
C2F: 3. It would take a gallon of this light, 5.5-percent Frankenwine to get lit, and the resulting Moscato hangover is too abominable to even contemplate.
Drinkability: 5. One of the panel deemed it "tasty," like a "Coppertone champagne."
In today's hip-hop scene, being true royalty means having your own brand of hooch. Lil Jon tried it with Little Jonathan Winery, the Bay Area's E-40 (aka the grandfather of "fo' shizzle") did it with Earl Stevens Selections, and now Nicki Minaj has entered the game with Myx Fusions, an effervescent marriage of fruitish flavor and sweet wine. As part owner of its parent company, Nicki's been promoting the drink hard, plugging it in her song "High School" and giving it a holler in Ciara's "I'm Out" right before mentioning that large male genitalia fall out of her butt.
This shameless advertising would be laughable if Myx sucked, but fortunately that's not altogether true. It's a girly, perfumed concoction for sure, but it goes down the hatch easily enough, like a tropical carbonated sake. Just don't make the mistake of believing, as one of Minaj's music videos implies, that it's the perfect drink to serve at a shady business deal. I can imagine no better way to get your money robbed and then laughed out of the building and down the block.
Tasters' notes: "Much better than cough syrup. Almost good enough to finish."
Twisted Shotz, $2
C2F: 9. Alcohol content varies but tends to hover around 20 percent. Buy the full 15 pack, and you've acquired the equivalent to a Men In Black day-eraser.
Drinkability: 3. The tastes range from bad bourbon to smokey tequila sandpaper, always with a potent overtone of factory-made fruit. It's also hard, psychologically speaking, to accommodate innocent childhood memories of Fla-Vor-Ice along with the suspicion that most people drinking these are 5 minutes away from an STD.
The label says the Kiwi-made Twisted Shotz are supposed to be sold by the pack, but the store I found them in was shilling them individually, no doubt because truly twisted people don't care about the rules, man. Each plastic vitrine is divided into two compartments so that the "shot" mixes in your mouth, and I would advise doing it exactly so. I dipped my finger into the "Miami Vice" shot and was rewarded with a punch of strawberry car-freshener on one side, and on the other an objectionable colada with the appearance of watery mayonnaise. There's a limit to cheap-booze fandom, and this guy busted through it with a steamroller: