April 18, 2014 started like any normal Friday for John Messinger, an attorney at Lehrman Beverage Law, a D.C.-based firm focused on the beverage industry. After a morning spent digging through a government database of countless “margarita-related label approvals, trying to find a precedent to support whatever claim a client wanted to make on their margarita label,” he couldn’t help but notice a peculiar label that seemed out of place.
It was rectangular, black and featured imagery not of margaritas, or any form of liquid at all. Rather, centered on the label were the words “Palcohol” and “Powdered Alcohol” in giant white lettering, with a small pile of white powder featured below them. Little did Messinger know, the discovery was about to cause one of the greatest moral panics of the 21st century.
Today, Palcohol’s label is inseparable from the social uproar, political grandstanding and media-fueled fearmongering it wrought. But before it became a cautionary tale of cultural infamy, Palcohol was little more than the quirky topic of a niche beverage industry law blog.
Upon his Friday morning discovery in 2014, Messinger texted the database entry to the founder of his law firm, Robert Lehrman. “I told Robert immediately because he was always looking for good blog fodder,” he says. “But I didn’t think that it would get much attention — other than from the handful of other nerds that care about wacky alcohol beverage products.”
To be sure, powdered alcohol was nothing new. Essentially, certain sugar molecules are able to “trap” alcohol inside their molecular structure, thus turning the liquid into dry, granular “packages” of alcohol.
Chemists have been tweaking that formula for decades, as figuring out a cheap, efficient way to create powdered alcohol presents a number of potential commercial and industrial opportunities. Companies in Germany, Japan and the Netherlands have sold some fashion of powdered alcohol since the 1970s. And in the U.S., William Mitchell — aka the guy who invented Tang and Pop Rocks — patented a method for encapsulating alcohol molecules within a sugar derivative in 1972. Around 2010, a Nevada-based company called Pulver Spirits stopped just short of getting approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, citing “regulatory hurdles.”
Around the same time, leading up to its approval in 2014, Mark Phillips, the 57-year-old inventor of Palcohol, had successfully guided his product through four years of all the necessary background checks, formula approvals and manufacturing permits without so much as raising an eyebrow. In February 2012, Phillips trademarked the name “Palcohol,” and incorporated what would become Palcohol’s parent company, Lipsmark LLC.
Securing the TTB’s go ahead for the label and packaging was the last step in the rigorous regulatory process of getting an alcoholic beverage approved for production. And on April 8, 2014, 10 days before Messinger found the label in the government’s public database, Phillips finally got the green light to start making and selling Palcohol.
In Lehrman’s mind, the fact that someone took a stab at powdered alcohol didn’t necessarily make for tantalizing blog fodder. Rather, the attorney focused his post on how Palcohol had gotten so far in the approval process given its blatantly controversial website. “The person that pushed this through must be very patient or lucky and/or good,” Lehrman wrote at the time. “The product seems highly likely to raise a large number of legal issues and controversies [and] the company’s website (as of a few days ago) tended to underscore the controversies.”
On Palcohol’s website, Phillips listed suggested uses for powdered alcohol, including that people take it into public events to “enjoy a mixed drink for a fraction of the cost,” and “sprinkle Palcohol on almost any dish and give it an extra kick.” Later on, the website continued, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room… snorting Palcohol. Yes, you can snort it. And you’ll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose. Good idea? No. It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly.”
Lehrman knew the post might make some waves, but he certainly didn’t expect what would unfold over the next 24 hours. “I threw the blog up and literally our server started to melt down immediately,” he tells me. “I was watching the analytics, and it went from 200 to 1,000 people on the page at the same time, then to 2,000 and then to 4,000. It kept climbing to the point that I had to upgrade our website’s bandwidth to accommodate the additional traffic. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, and those numbers sustained for a couple more weeks. People from all over the world were reading it.”
Countless media outlets picked up the story, detailing the language on Palcohol’s website and hypothesizing about the horrors the powder could create. “The convenience of the packets could encourage over-consumption of alcohol, as well as accidents caused by intoxication, such as drunken driving,” CBS News reported, quoting a doctor who argued Palcohol’s flavors (Vodka, Rum, Lemon Drop, Mojito, Powerita and Cosmopolitan) made it “very appealing to small children.”
“Palcohol went from zero results on Google as of April 18th to more than 2 million on April 23rd,” Lehrman explains. Phillips eventually called Lehrman to say the blog post “shined an unwelcome light on his situation.” “He was totally blindsided; he wasn’t ready for the attention that came from my blog post,” Lehrman recalls. “I think it shook him. I apologized and felt bad. But it wasn’t foreseeable that he’d be blindsided — everything in the post was public information.”
On April 26th, after four days of backlash and media frenzy, the TTB announced that it had “incorrectly approved” Palcohol due to a “labeling error.” In turn, Phillips surrendered Palcohol’s approvals and went into damage control, revamping Palcohol’s pitch, website and labeling to be much more tame. “A great convenience for the person involved in activities where weight and bulk is a factor,” he now wrote, stating that Palcohol was perfect for hiking and backpacking. As for the former “elephant in the room,” Phillips claimed the much-quoted section of the website was a page where the company was “experimenting with some humorous and edgy verbiage about Palcohol,” that wasn’t intended to be public. From there, he purported to have reformulated Palcohol’s ingredients to make snorting it much more difficult.
“To take precautions against [snorting Palcohol], we’ve added volume to the powder so it would take more than a half of a cup of powder to get the equivalent of one drink up your nose,” Phillips added to the website. “You would feel a lot of pain for very little gain.”
Unfortunately, while Phillips worked with the TTB for re-approval, the public’s fear of powdered alcohol grew to a fever pitch. Two weeks after it initially made headlines, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer publicly blasted Palcohol and pressed the FDA for a federal ban on the powder. “Palcohol would soon become the Kool-Aid of teenage binge drinking,” the senator said, holding up a packet of Kool-Aid to an audience at the Boys & Girls Club of Albany. “We want the FDA to ban it and ban it ahead of time, so we know it will never see the light.”
Politicians from both state and national governments continued to chime in, either grandstanding against the company or introducing legislation to ban its powdered alcohol. “There could also be dangerous health risks from snorting this product to get alcohol directly to the brain,” New York State Senator Joseph Griffo wrote in a June 2014 statement. “It could even be sprinkled onto someone’s food or in their drink without the other person’s knowledge.”
If they hadn’t already taken up arms to defend the children from the dangers of powdered alcohol, lawmakers faced increasing pressure from industry leaders. Case in point: Steve Schmidt, senior vice president of communications for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, urged state legislators to act fast in banning powdered alcohol at a local level during a presentation at the 2014 National Conference of State Legislatures Fall Forum.
Before the year’s end, 11 states had either introduced or fully enacted legislation outlawing its sale. Phillips, meanwhile, continued to work with the TTB for label approval while backpedaling on the incendiary language that kicked off the original tidal wave of moral outrage. He even took to YouTube with a video titled “The Truth About Palcohol” in an effort to clear his product’s name.
Outside of the video and a few sporadic statements to the media (often through a company spokesperson), Phillips remained an elusive figure throughout Palcohol’s controversial rise. According to a rare profile of Phillips in his hometown Phoenix Magazine, the Palcohol creator was “cagey about revealing personal information.” “Positioning himself as a wine connoisseur who detests snobbery,” Jimmy Magahern writes, “the former Alexandria, Va. businessman achieved some fame in an independently produced video, Enjoying Wine with Mark Phillips, that aired on more than 300 PBS stations between 2006 and 2012, and an accompanying book, Swallow This.” And through a blog written by a Lutheran minister in Brookfield, Illinois, Magahern also learned that Phillips was born in Elmhurst, Illinois as “Mark Waldschmidt.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Philips couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. Gathering what little information exists about him online, Phillips has ventured into a number of scattershot projects, including a now defunct app called My Fest Friend, and a grainy YouTube series called The Wineoceros Show, wherein he discusses wine next to a mannequin.
Today, Phillips’ main focus seems to be operating the website winetasting.org, which he uses as a platform to continue marketing himself as a no-frills wine connoisseur available for public speaking. Most notably, however, he’s all but completely severed any association to Palcohol — which is understandable, given that the outrage in 2014 was just the beginning.
To pick up that part of the story, in March 2015, nearly an entire year after rescinding its initial approval, the TTB re-approved Palcohol’s label. Once again, Phillips was clear to enter the market, and once again, a wave of outrage followed. States continued to introduce prohibitive legislation, public health departments signed pledges denouncing powdered alcohol and Senator Schumer remained resolute in his pursuit of a federal ban.
This time, however, Phillips was ready for the attention. “Since when is it the role of the government to play nanny and tell us what we can and cannot drink?” he wrote to Lehrman, who published the statements on his blog in April 2015. “We believe the big liquor companies are using their money and lobbyists to encourage bills to be introduced to ban powdered alcohol to protect their market share and profits.”
With that in mind, Phillips took the fight to Congress. Publicly available lobbying disclosures show that Lipsmark LLC paid D.C. lobbyist Michael Esposito $20,000 to persuade lawmakers against enacting laws that banned powdered alcohol. (Notably, Esposito is now under federal investigation for allegedly profiting from access to President Trump.)
Tensions heightened and a backlash to the backlash ensued, as YouTubers and journalists alike attempted to debunk the myths surrounding powdered alcohol. “I was reading about the moral panic, and it all just seemed so absurd,” says Brent Rose, a journalist who covered Palcohol for Wired. “I was like, ‘I don’t see how this could possibly do the things that they’re saying it will do, so let’s test it.”
For all the public outcry, no one had actually been able to try the product yet. Phillips was notoriously protective of his formula, so much so that some began to question how “a serial entrepreneur could manage to crack a code that’s stumped chemists for decades?”
Although Rose’s intent was to dissolve the fear around Palcohol — so much so that he even tried to create his own version — Phillips refused to send him a packet to sample. “He basically told us in very stern language to ‘not associate anything you do with Palcohol because yours will have nothing in common with Palcohol and added the line ‘We are very serious about this,’” Rose recalls. “Ironically, he ended up embedding our video on his website, since it showed how overblown the Palcohol paranoia was.”
As for the powdered alcohol Rose created, it just proved to him how impractical it would be in reality. “We didn’t have access to the chemicals and products that I assume he did, but we got within the ballpark of what it would be,” Rose tells me. “Even when he mixed it in his own YouTube video, you could tell it stayed chunky for a while. So the idea that someone could spike your drink with it and you don’t immediately notice a lump of starch or weird taste was absurd.”
After struggling to snort a “small mountain” and chug countless cups of his homemade powdered alcohol, Rose didn’t have very positive opinions. “It just burned and turned to a sticky glue-like substance instantaneously,” he says. “More than anything else, it proved how much easier it’d be just to use regular liquid alcohol for all the things people were afraid of.”
To a certain extent, the messaging that pushed back against the moral outrage pushed too hard in the other direction. Palcohol swung from being touted as an edgy, party-enhancing product to something genuinely impractical. “It was ultimately such a benign novelty product, and it never even had a chance to get off the ground,” Rose continues. “But of course, it’s too perfect that this was the one thing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together for, despite being completely wrong about it.”
To that end, by November 2015, 40 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., had moved to either permanently or temporarily ban Palcohol from being sold. On October 21, 2016, Phillips officially threw in the towel.
In a press release, Phillips advertised that he was auctioning off “the secret formula and manufacturing process for Palcohol to the highest bidder in each of 130 countries” on January 1, 2017. Per an archived version of Palcohol.com, Phillips explained that bidding started at a mere $10,000, and anyone who wanted proof that Palcohol was real could “come to Scottsdale, Arizona, and we will allow you to sample it in a conference room, not at our manufacturing facility,” adding that the “cost is $100 per sample which is enough to make one drink.”
And with that, Palcohol dissolved into obscurity. Ultimately, it’s unclear whether Palcohol’s ascent to glory was undone by overwrought self-confidence or a virulent misunderstanding of basic science. Either way, Rose believes Palcohol’s demise is far from unique. “This is just this one little edge-case scenario where a bunch of geriatrics got to pass laws on something, despite a complete lack of understanding as to how it worked in reality,” he tells me. “And while sure, Palcohol was this weird and dumb little thing, this is something that happens every day in this country and all over the world.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated Mark Phillips suggested users ‘sneak’ Palcohol into public events, when the language he actually used was to ‘take’ it into public events.
Additionally, in an email post-publication, Phillips stated that he has not completely severed ties with Palcohol, adding, ‘In fact, if all goes well, Palcohol could be launched later this year.'”