The notorious party drink, Four Loko, is making a comeback—in China.
While the drink’s popularity in the US waned after a series of hospitalizations and other incidents, it is now being offered on China’s giant online shopping portals Alibaba and JD.com, where it is sometimes being advertised as “blackout in a can.”
Four Loko’s new Chinese users refer to it online as shi shen jiu, or “lose virginity liquor.”
Already, some imbibers are running into trouble. Four twenty-something Chinese girls in Nanjing, an eastern city near Shanghai, wanted to try the drink, local police reported (link in Chinese, registration required). After three of them consumed six cans they sneaked into a karaoke bar, passed out, and were robbed, police said.
First manufactured in the US about a decade ago, Four Loko is made by Phusion Projects of Chicago. The US Food and Drug Administration warned the company in November 2010 that the beverage’s mixture of alcohol with caffeine could be hazardous to users, and the company changed its formulation to eliminate stimulates. (The “Four” in the name stands for caffeine, alcohol, the Brazilian stimulant guarana, and the animal-derived stimulant taurine, which is also used in energy drinks like Red Bull. The alcohol is malt liquor.)
At least five states in US banned Four Loko in its earlier formulation, including Washington, where nine university students were hospitalized in October 2010 after consuming Four Loko and vodka. Parents of a 20-year-old Florida man who had been drinking the alcoholic beverage for 30 hours say it caused their son to commit suicide in November of the same year. Phusion agreed to a ban of the manufacture and sale of caffeinated alcoholic drinks nationwide with 20 attorney generals and the city of San Francisco after the reformulation.
Now Four Loko is available on Alibaba and JD in China. There are dozens of sellers offering it on Alibaba’s Taobao, and on JD.com. It even appears has its own flagship store on Tmall, the online shopping platform for brands owned by Alibaba.
Products vary from platform to platform. On Tmall, what’s for sale is a “new” version that says it is a caffeine-free, 14% alcoholic cocktail.
But most Four Loko products listed on Taobao say ingredients include 12% alcohol, caffeine, and amino acids commonly used for “alertness”—all in eight fruity flavors. A Phusion Projects spokesman told Quartz that the “advertisements on Taobao are not from Phusion Projects and therefore are not associated in any manner with Phusion Projects.”
The company has “does not claim to have caffeine anywhere on our official channels,” the spokesman added. “Four Loko removed caffeine from our formula in 2010, and has never promoted its product from containing caffeine since.”
The prices vary from 29 yuan ($4.40) per can on Taobao to 100 yuan ($15) on Tmall. Though Taobao is notorious for fakes, over 10,000 people have bought the products.
Consuming a standard 695 ml can would be equal to drinking six beers or five glasses of 45 proof whisky, according to Four Loko’s Tmall homepage. It is also being sold through liquor distribution agents (link in Chinese, registration required), including one who calls it “beer,” even though most beers sold in China contain 4% to 8% alcohol.
No domestic manufactures are producing the liquor, state media outlet Xinhua reports (link in Chinese, registration required). Chinese consumers are already starting to ask questions about the drink. One commented online (link in Chinese, registration required): “Why is it banned in US but trendy now in China? Where is the Chinese FDA?”
This article was updated with additional information and comment from Phusion Projects.