Modern Mythology: Espresso Martinis and Red Bull Vodkas

Dom Rottman

20 October 2023

It’s a Thursday evening, which is basically the weekend. In celebration thereof you and some friends go out for Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime™, because it has been decided that we must have football nearly every night of the goddamn week. After your food, a waiter comes by and asks if you would like any after-dinner drinks. One of your friends raises his eyebrows and declares that he will have an Espresso Martini. This strikes you as odd. This place is hardly known for its cocktails, much less any espresso drinks. In fact, you don’t recall seeing a proper espresso machine anywhere at the bar. At most, there might have been a large, nondescript metal box with lots of buttons which, somehow, produces coffee from its spout. Like the waiter beforehand, you blink at your friend with one part confusion, one part embarrassment, and two parts derision, knowing full well that whatever comes back will be some ham-handed beverage that tastes like diluted Kahlua. It arrives, garnished with three shimmering coffee beans sinking rapidly into the thinning foam, in a cocktail glass dusted carelessly with coffee grounds, imitating margarita salt. You are unable to contain your expression as he takes his first sip. “What? They’re good!” he insists, in spite of the flashing wince he just made.

It’s a Thursday evening, or “Thirsty Thursday,” as it is sometimes called. Since you have no class tomorrow, you have invited some friends over to your dorm to watch Thursday Night Football on a Completely Legal Football Stream, because it has been decided that we must have football nearly every night of the goddamn week. You have just returned from the supermarket with some snacks and, notably, two cases of Red Bull. You place the Red Bull on the counter and grab red solo cups from the cabinet. You also take a completely legally acquired bottle of Svedka (eugh) and put it in the freezer to chill, but not before pouring out a shot for yourself. You fill the rest of the cup with a handful of ice and one of the cans of Red Bull. It’s been a long day, and the last thing you want to feel is alcohol-induced drowsiness during the 3rd quarter. You take a sip. You wince, the mixture is vile. What the hell is this drink? Is it the vodka? Probably not, citron is just lemon, after all. Is it the Red Bull? Actually, yeah, what the hell is red bull anyway? Sure, it’s sweet but it tastes like nothing–nothing real, anyway. You take a gulp. It tastes like off-brand sprite spiked with overpriced bottom-shelf liquor (because it was), mixed with nine Equal packets and zested with nondescript citrus fruits. Don’t worry. Once it kicks in it’ll be liquid candy.

Thirteen years ago, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration effectively banned the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages by telling companies to pull such products from shelves or face penalty under federal law. Four Loko, the most notorious among them, had previously catalyzed a wave of criticism of such beverages amid bans across several states and universities. Yet today the espresso martini has received no such outcry despite a recent increase in popularity.

Intuitively, the difference is obvious: one reeks of high-energy college house parties while the other connotes a mellow, sophisticated air that has place only in a bar. This corresponds to the lack of bad faith Four Loko engaged in relative to the rest of the alcohol industry, for which it was ultimately punished, accused also of marketing to underage drinkers. The drink makes no attempt to hide the literal craze it seeks to induce, named for the fiendish quaternity it used to add to the alcohol: caffeine, taurine, guarana, and wormwood—the alleged psychoactive ingredient in absinthe1—belied by Its oblong energy drink-esque cans, decorated with an obnoxious tie-dye in neon colors. Meanwhile, the alcohol industry at large is not only legally mandated but enthusiastically willing to remind us to “drink responsibly” during happy hour and bottle service.

However, while bad faith is required for the sale of alcohol, it is certainly not required for its consumption. Drinking to get drunk, the instrumentalization of alcohol, is a pastime that crosses boundaries of all ages, nations, races, and creeds, keeping Dionysus seated on Olympus and cheap alcohol in business; “everything in moderation, even moderation.” Red Bull Vodka ranks high among instrumental beverages as a pathway to a different enjoyment. If Four Loko’s marketing was not the industry-required thick coat of bad faith but only a thin veil, the Red Bull Vodka strips it off completely and lays bare the same purpose: a “wide-awake drunk,” warned to us as a side effect! Not itself marketed in a single container (to my knowledge), Red Bull Vodka’s instrumentality is not concealed by any aesthetic–a disturbing shade akin to dehydrated urine is contained by a cheap vessel, and it cannot even hide itself behind a so much as a name for its flavor. It transmits the high of the alcohol without the crash; human battery acid, it is an energy drink through and through, perhaps evenpar excellence.

While Red Bull Vodka is consumed almost exclusively in homes, the Espresso Martini is even more exclusive to bars, perhaps due to the substantial lack of commercial espresso machines in the average home. However, the larger factor is that the Espresso Martini is meant to be drunk “performatively,” that is, in front of others. Refined air and dim lighting do not obscure but rather highlight a rich yet watery shade of brown in its martini glass, yet it is canned and sold in liquor stores (????). There is no special notice next to it on menus saying that it may make you unaware of your intoxication level, but why should it? Like every other drinker, you are an adult who knows how to drink responsibly. The proof of this is how easily you can handle three or four of them.

Maturity is what distinguishes the Red Bull Vodka and the Espresso Martini. Literally, the demographics are different, and the former is but a road to hype and warm feelings, while the latter is meant to be enjoyed, even appreciated. Never mind that you’re literally drinking poison either way. Maturity here is only a matter of appearance. It is not a matter of innocence lost but of guilt concealed. The consumer of the espresso martini participates in the bad faith which marks the end of its production; the illusory difference between two caffeinated alcoholic drinks is insisted upon in a performance. That one might happen to enjoy the taste of one better does nothing to change an identical function. I myself enjoy red wine and coffee, separately, at the same time. The fact that I enjoy the taste of both independently—and the fact that you will never find me drinking Barefoot and/or Folgers—does not change the fact that I’m going to get drunk and stay awake for the whole time.

It is common today to repackage something already made and peddle it off as new and different. The increasing need for cheap commodities compels this tendency, and does wonders for innovation in this space. Deception, then, becomes inherent to the production process and not a mere marketing scheme, which is produced organically. Insofar as production “dupes” otherwise skeptical consumers, it does so just enough to maintain a lucrative charade. Maturity is therefore something which is draped over the same as now novel and refined, making it acceptable to the dynamic bourgeois mind that would otherwise penetrate through to the truth. It preys on the discomfort that certain realities are better not faced, so that even if ideology is not quite believed in, it is enough for folks to play along in bad faith. Like how espresso martinis conceal the destruction of the self which Red Bull Vodkas make all but obvious, the destruction of the world is better digested in numbers and models than in letters of blood and fire—and less still the material reality behind it all. The veil of ignorance so woven deceives all sides in its barely plausible deniability on which unfounded optimism on one side and unfounded disbelief is on the other is based. Growing up, one ceases to be moved not only by the world’s wonders but by its horrors. The hope of maturity is not a longing for innocence or the pursuit of enlightenment, but a want to keep the charade going forever.

  1. I drink Absinthe. This is patent nonsense, I only get drunk faster. ↩︎