Like many of you, I lost a lot in 2008. But this week, things got worse. On Thursday (right before the weekend!), I found out that I'd soon be losing a core member of my social group: the life of the party, the cheap date, the friend that was never more than a convenience store away. I'm serious: alcohol giant MillerCoors announced they'd be getting rid of their alcopop beverage Sparks. If you're over 30, this may mean nothing to you. But for cash-strapped 20-somethings around the country, this is another reason, besides the unemployment rate, we'll be staying home on weekends.
I suppose MillerCoors is doing the right thing. If you're an advocate of safety or against underage drinking, you may be wary of alcoholic drinks that are filled with caffeine whose manufacturers are often accused of marketing to high schoolers. I do confess that Sparks comes in a can that looks like it goes hand-in-foot with a skateboard, not to mention that its sinister mix of malt liquor, taurine, caffeine, guarana and ginseng—as healthy as all that sounds—apparently doesn't do a person's liver or heart rate any favors.
If you're not familiar with Sparks, you might think that mixing an energy beverage and malt liquor in one can is a little bit like buying premade s'mores or those jars that come with the peanut butter and jelly already swirled together. (And if you haven't thought of mixing caffeine and alcohol in the first place, then you really are over 30.) But Sparks has a taste all its own—more like frothy Tang than beer and Red Bull combined.
Its appeal? When I don't sleep well on Thursday, it helps me muster up the energy to celebrate on Friday night. When I want to head home from a birthday party at midnight, it reminds me that, not so long ago, I was in college. It's a completely legal and safe way (in moderation, of course) of enjoying a night out with too many friends and too many drinks without feeling woozy, belligerent or what can be only be referred to as "out of it."
It's a sign of the times that I didn't read about this disaster in the newspaper, I read about it on Facebook. On my roommate's page, a note from a former classmate included a link to the news with a mournful message: "You were the first person I thought of." Another friend sent me an instant message with the epitaph, "It's so sad, isn't it?" And a co-worker around my age got not one, but two e-mails from those preparing to grieve. Meanwhile, Gawker.com wrote, "First, they came for Zima, and we said nothing," before sharing the depressing news that Sparks, a "disgusting caffeinated malternative beverage," was 6 years old. Rest in Peace.
Even my Twitter feed was atwitter: one young blogger threatened to start hoarding this drink the way artists stashed soon-to-be-discontinued Polaroid film earlier this year or women stocked up on the Today Sponge contraceptive after it was deemed unsafe in the '90s. To be sure, this isn't the first time a beloved product has been taken off the market, just the first time that I happened to be the one in love. And it hurts.
The folks at MillerCoors knew that they were on to a good thing when they purchased Sparks among other drinks in 2006 from the McKenzie River Corporation: they paid $215 million dollars. Since then, Sparks has cornered 90 percent of the alcopop market, a family of beverages that has come under fierce scrutiny for allegedly marketing to teenagers who aren't old enough to drink. I suppose that's a valid point, considering that even several of my co-workers didn't know Sparks contained alcohol. Scientists have also argued that mixing a downer (alcohol) with an upper (caffeine) can send your heart rate on a rollercoaster ride (all while your mind rattles with the question "How drunk am I?"). And research conducted at Wake Forest University found that students who mixed both ingredients—as in, vodka and Red Bull—were more injury-prone than those who stuck to straight alcohol.
Despite this slander—as I'll call it—Sparks, and beverages like it, had been approved by the federal regulating authorities several times, overcoming criticism of the way they were formulated, labeled, marketed and sold. In the eyes of the government, this glorious nectar was good to go. But unfortunately, that didn't stop more than a dozen state attorney generals from initiating lawsuits this year. Nearly all of them mentioned that teachers didn't know that the students drinking Sparks in their class were not just drinking another energy drink.
As an adult of consenting age, I say the kids are ruining all the fun. And while I recognize that underage drinking is a serious problem, Sparks clearly noted its alcoholic content (6 percent alcohol by volume) on its wonderfully metallic cans. In the end, authorities won out and MillerCoors chose to "reformulate" the beverage (removing the uppers) in an agreement reached on Thursday. In short, I'll lose my stimulant-filled Saturday evenings, and the corporation will pay $550,000 to the 13 states that challenged it, as well as the city of San Francisco.
So goodbye, Sparks. I'll miss side effects like orange tongue (which, I admit, was a low point) and I'll miss introducing you to people who aren't yet familiar with you, only to have them argue that you taste gross and made me look homeless. I'll miss staying up late and not needing naps. And I'll miss the convenience of buying just one beverage—sans mixers—at the convenience store. When it comes down to it, I'm sure that I have other options. I could hark back a few years, when Red Bull and vodka was all the rage. I'm less interested, though, because the reason I like you, Sparks, is that you're not hard liquor; you're hard beer. I guess this is the end. Goodbye, fun, and goodbye, laughter.
We have until Jan. 10 before the good old caffeinated Sparks disappears entirely from the shelves. So if you haven't tasted its succulent sweetness, or you've always wondered what you'd look like with orange teeth, go stock up. Though if you live in New York, you'll have to beat me there. Because just the thought of a weekend without Sparks puts me to sleep.