It’s always the guy with the hat on backward. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Friday, he’s scanning the bar, looking for women, sometimes chewing on a toothpick. “Yo, lemme get a vodka Red Bull,” he tells me, and when I say we don’t carry it, he settles on a double Jack on the rocks. He’s trying to catch an express train to Blackout City.
Then there’s the guy who’s already arrived at said destination. He’s looking for a Hail Mary to keep himself standing. This poor bastard walks up to the bar with his eyes half-closed, zeroing in on one of the tap handles like a one-eyed homing pigeon. “Vodka Rebuh,” he slurs. I see the logic here: Fuck, I’m wasted. Better add caffeine.
At this point, though, nothing is going to save you, friend, and you sure as shit aren’t going to be served. Have some water and call it a night.
I’ve been bartending long enough to have a set of parameters about the places I’ll work in. For starters, I’d rather not work anywhere that’s open for lunch, I think anything over 20 seats at the bar is excessive and I’m really tired of 2 a.m. closes.
But at the very top of my list of things I don’t want to deal with has to do with inventory: That is, I won’t work anywhere that carries Red Bull.
Mixing alcohol with caffeine (with any upper, really) does two things: The alcohol can dull the effects of the caffeine (boring), or more problematically, the caffeine can dull the effects of the alcohol, meaning you can drink way more than you normally would without feeling super-hammered.
The problem? Just because you don’t feel wasted, you are. Big time. Your hangover the next day will let you know. And possibly where you wake up, because it might be jail.
I know, though, it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the history of the vodka Red Bull is significantly less unseemly than the drink’s reputation has, in recent days, warranted.
Here’s the best I can tell about how and where the vodka Red Bull came to be — and why, for many drinkers, it isn’t going anywhere.
An Instantly Iconic Jet Lag Cure
The story of the shit show begins 40 years ago in Thailand, where a chemist and pharmaceutical rep named Chaleo Yoovidhya was producing and selling a tangy, herbal, energy-boosting tincture in small glass bottles to Thai truck drivers and other laborers. Yoovidhya’s product was (and still is) called Krating Daeng, or Red Gaur, gaur being a type of Southeast Asian bison. The now iconic charging red bulls backed by a setting sun has been the drink’s logo since Day One.
In 1982, Yoovidhya met Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz, who was working for a pharmaceutical company called Blendax. Yoovidhya’s Krating Daeng cured Mateschitz’s jet lag like nothing he’d ever experienced, and almost immediately, the two began working together to take the product international. In 1984, Mateschitz and Yoovidhya founded Red Bull GmbH. Three years later, the silver-canned, carbonated sister of Krating Daeng hit the streets, or rather the slopes, of Austria. It was marketed as a hip, upscale energy booster in Austrian ski lodges. And by 1994, the energy drink was sponsoring athletes worldwide, including U.S. windsurfer Robby Nash. In 1997, Red Bull–sponsored events were taking place in the U.S. That’s when, to the best of our knowledge, the soon-to-be-legendary and -notorious vodka Red Bull was born.
Andy Kilgore, Boston bartender and restaurateur: I was working in a bar in Aspen in 1997. One of my roommates was a pro skier. There was a big Red Bull event in town, and they were sponsoring my roommate, so we had Red Bull up the ying-yang in our apartment. There was this bar called Eric’s — they had a cigar bar, restaurant and a bar bar — and that was the first time I saw someone pour a vodka Red Bull.
In fairness, I’m sure they were pouring just about everything in Red Bull that night. [But you] have to keep in mind that in the 1990s, vodka was everywhere. Basically, it went into everything, so automatically it was Red Bull and vodka, and you’d either make a vodka Red Bull or you’d do shots of vodka and chase it with Red Bull.
The Rave Scene Finds Its Fuel
Trying to nail down the first person who ever put vodka in Red Bull is kind of like trying to find the first person who turned a can into a bong: “I dunno, dude, it was there so I tried it.” But the origin story of the vodka Red Bull as an intentional and deliberate concoction does have an exact time and place. Specifically, in 1998, Red Bull began creeping into markets outside the world of extreme sports, namely the music and entertainment industry. That year, the company hosted the first Red Bull Music Academy, a gathering of artists, producers and other industry movers and shakers in Berlin. (The academy is still going strong today.) Not long afterward — in its quest for seemingly successful world domination — Red Bull came to the San Francisco rave scene, looking to tap a(nother) market of folks living and working on the edge.
Vlad Cood, owner of Butter and longtime event promoter: Butter really did establish the vodka Red Bull — or Red Bull vodka, as we’ve always called it — as a nightlife party drink. Red Bull was working really hard to break into the rave scene, and we really didn’t want it there. We didn’t need or want that kind of mainstream support or association. This was San Francisco in the 1990s, right?
So we said you might want to take that to a 21-and-up dance club rather than try to work it into the underground. I introduced [Red Bull] to my friends, Chris and Carlton Solle, who were opening Butter as a kind of party bar, if you will, and a partnership was born.
When Butter was being launched it was the kind of place everybody in the scene had a hand in: There were probably hundreds of sponsors; no contribution was too small. The Red Bull reps, however, came in and offered $50,000 to feature the drink on the menu.
From San Francisco to the Rest of the Nation
Cood: At Butter, all the party promoters were kind of a package deal. So by working with Butter, Red Bull was essentially working with everyone in town who hosted raves and late-night dance events. I’d say by the end of 1999 then, every nightclub from Seattle to Boulder to New York was serving Red Bull vodka because they were all working with the same promoters — the core essence of the San Francisco rave scene.
We called it the Red Bull vodka and shortened it on our menu to the RV. The RV is everywhere at Butter. It’s on the menu, and it’s on the wall. For us, it will always be an iconic drink. Butter created the “perfect pour” in order to use the entire 8.4-ounce can over ice and top it off with 2 to 3 ounces of vodka in a 16-ounce Mason jar. It’s still how we serve it today. We’re the only place in existence, as far as I know, that still does it like that.
Still, we don’t know exactly when Red Bull vodka first moved from West Coast raves to East Coast sports bars, but we do know the combination was being poured in New England by the early aughts.
Peter Cipriani, bartender at Moonshine 152, Boston: The first time I really remember seeing Red Bull was at Pho Republique in the South End in 2001. They didn’t have the Red Bull we have now, but it was in the little glass bottles straight from Asia, and it wasn’t carbonated — it was flat, concentrated. Same logo, but everything was in Thai. We’d give the person the bottle; [they] could do highball, ice, vodka, whatever, and then pour it.
Tony Iamunno, Boston bartender: I still think the first person who put them together was probably some poor bastard bartender working a double. Either way, Red Bull was definitely here when I came of age to legally drink in bars in 2002, and it was a big thing.
Kilgore: When I first got to Boston from Aspen in 2003 or 2004, I worked in the Revolution Rock Bar, and Red Bull was on the menu. It was a big club thing, it was on all our menus. But nobody looked at the menus in clubs, they just called for it.
The Drink’s Dark Side
By the time I could legally drink in bars, in 2009, ordering a vodka Red Bull was frowned upon: It was viewed as a surefire way to get super-fucked-up and possibly start a fight.
Cipriani: I think it bundled with the whole Four Loko thing. There was that debacle — kids were dying, having seizures. As soon as that came out, I feel like everybody took a step back and distanced themselves from energy drinks and alcohol because it was clear there was a dark side. This was the late 2000s — 2008, maybe 2009.
People became much more judicious about serving it. The possibility of things going badly became much more apparent. I’ve always been glad we don’t serve Red Bull. It never fit in philosophically or aesthetically with what we were trying to do in the places I’ve worked anyway.
‘The Late-Night Party Is Just Too Important’
That said, there will always be bars able and more than willing to serve Red Bull and vodka — and for good reason: It’s what their guests want to drink.
James Mahon, bartender, Trophy Room, Boston: We serve it here, and it’s never a problem. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a gay bar that doesn’t carry Red Bull. The late-night party is just too important to the gay community.
Kilgore: Any bartender worth their salt who’s not working in a club environment doesn’t want to serve a vodka Red Bull. When I opened Foundry in 2010, we discussed at length whether or not to serve it. I fought hard to keep it out. But it was bartenders vs. ownership, and the owners said there’s just too much money in it not to carry it.
Iamunno: At the end of the day, people are always going to take what they can and get fucked up with it.