When I was 13, I walked to 7-Eleven with a friend who had recently become one of the first kids I knew to smoke pot. We both bought energy drinks, and on the way home he told me that drinking it made him feel kind of like being high. Since that day, I’ve been an energy drink man. I don’t think drinking them is like smoking marijuana (a year later he told me that a blow job sort of felt like slowly putting your penis in and out of a warm shower stream; maybe his sensory system was warped), but I love everything about them. Their bitter chemical taste, the way they make my mind race, the garish fonts and caffeine warnings that double as dares—these are my madeleines. Nothing fills me with anticipation like the sight of bubbling neon yellow-green in a big glass of ice.
For this article, I tested 13 different varieties to see which gave me the most energy. For the sake of scientific accuracy, I limited myself to one can or bottle per day, eschewed diet versions, and made sure not to drink any other caffeine in the preceding hours.
A good piece of energy drink trivia is that Rockstar was founded by the son of right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage. For most of my late teens I would have at least one a day. When I went to college I was embarrassed to be seen drinking energy drinks so I would pour a Rockstar into a soda cup before class. Rockstar can be harder to come by in New York than its big name competitors, but it’s still my favorite energy drink. At least four women have complained to me about its smell, but I think it’s reminiscent of Campari. The 16-ounce can I drank wasn’t overpowering, and it gave me a pleasant buzz. I paired it with Joan Didion’s underrated novel Democracy, and it was one of the highlights of my week.
X-Treme Gladiator Energy Drink: Grape
My can of X-Treme Gladiator Energy featured an autograph by “The New Boss” and promises that “one in 500,000 cans wins $10,000” and “one in a million cans wins a Gladiator Camaro.” I can not figure out how to know if my can wins. As far as I can tell, the company is based in New York, runs a wrestling league, and sells vacations in the Bahamas. I’m afraid all of these things could be in the past tense, as the website listed all over the can has expired. After drinking this, searching the internet for information about X-Treme Gladiator felt like uncovering a secret plot and not just an unsuccessful business idea. At first I didn’t think it worked, and that I had spent $2 on a grape soda, but suddenly I was vacuuming and thinking about other parts of my apartment that I should clean, too. I soon found myself getting unjustifiably annoyed at outside noises. Then I started thinking about how awful it would feel if anyone came up and touched me in any way. Later my jaw hurt. If you find yourself near the bodega on Union Ave & Powers St. in Brooklyn, I strongly recommend picking up one of the few remaining cans.
In my life I have had hundreds of Monsters and I have never thought about what flavor(s) it tastes like. I would argue that this is a sign of success. After all, we don't think about what raw ingredients are in Coke; it just tastes like Coke. Monster is not my favorite energy drink, but, besides Red Bull, it’s the most widely available. I usually drink the Lo-Carb or Zero-Ultra versions (there isn’t one called “diet”), but for this test I went for full flavor. The copy on Monster’s black and green can says that “athletes, musicians, co-ed’s, mad warriors, metal heads, geeks, hipsters, and bikers dig it—you will too,” and they’re right. After drinking it I felt like I’d had a coffee. Not jittery, but not tired either. I went to the gym and had a good time.
5-Hour Energy Extra Strength
I heard that the creator of 5-Hour Energy created the energy shot after having an epiphany: Just because you want energy doesn’t mean you’re thirsty. Which is true (he’s a billionaire now), but ignores that most people drink soda or coffee because it’s a nice treat to break up the mundanity. Only a Silicon Valley robot would think people drink energy drinks for the energy. They taste good (to some people) and are a nice break, a way to reward oneself for getting through the day. 5-Hour Energy is antithetical to my idea of what an energy drink should be, so I was disappointed to find out that it’s pretty heavy. If anything, maybe it’s a little too strong. It made me flush, with a weird sensation in my arm and a feeling of anticipation in my stomach. I started reading Anna Karenina the other night and thought this would be a good way to plow through some chapters, but I kept getting distracted.
VUKA Natural Energy
This looks like one of those milquetoast energy teas, but it actually has 180mg of caffeine per bottle, which is more than most drinks on this list. I bought the “workout” flavor after going to the gym, and it was delicious. The bottle’s copy mentions rooibos, which I’ve always associated with acai and other internet scam super-foods, but this made me feel great. I went to Sahadi’s and felt pumped but somehow not annoyed by all the slow-moving 70-something shoppers.
Arizona Caution Extreme Performance Energy Drink
What initially attracted me to Arizona’s energy drink was that its price—“Great Buy! 99¢”—and “CAUTION” appear prominently on the can. It had the same light carbonation as Red Bull, but a fruitier taste, which I’d chalk up to the listed ingredients honey, mango, pear, apple, and peach. You can really taste the “10% juice.” Despite the 1697mg “Performance Blend” of taurine, guarana, ginseng, milk thistle extract, and caffeine, Caution Extreme Performance still left me a bit tired. Still, I imagine that if you sprung for two of these you’d be ahead of the game.
Hi-Ball Organic Energy Drink: Black Cherry
This one tasted like a melted Icee, or a watered-down Cherry Coke. I didn’t think it had much of an effect on me, but later that night I couldn’t sleep. It’s not my first choice, but I’d definitely drink it again.
Red Bull is the default energy drink and many people’s first introduction to this wired world. Through clever marketing (higher prices, smaller cans) Red Bull has managed to avoid the cheesier connotations of other high-caffeine sodas. Monster advertises on monster trucks; Red Bull advertises on Formula One cars. As a seasoned connoisseur I was skeptical that I would feel much of anything from such an establishment beverage, but I was pleasantly surprised. It is with approval that I note the drink gave me slightly sweaty palms. I felt my tinnitus get louder and, as I wrote my notes for this article, I noted that “typing is going smooth.”
Starbucks’s foray into the energy-drink market has the advantage of tasting like something you’d normally have to start your day, i.e. iced coffee. That said, it didn’t really do much for me. The syrupy, milky sweetness made my stomach hurt and overrode any energy I might’ve gotten from the caffeine. Just because society wants you to drink a Starbucks for breakfast instead of a soda doesn’t mean you should.
Mountain Dew Kickstart: Black Cherry
Meanwhile, for people who would like to optimize their breakfast soda, there’s Mountain Dew Kickstart. The 16 ounces only had 80 calories, which is like half of what a normal soda would have (and twice what’s in a coffee with milk and sugar), so it’s like, not totally bad for you. This only has 92mg of caffeine, so it’s not quite as powerful as I’d like, but it’d be perfect for a pre-teen gamer.
Guayake Yerba Mate: Traditional
Yerba mate is a tea-like drink from South America that’s a little less powerful that coffee. This one basically tastes like iced tea, with a hint of mint and sugar. Drinking it didn’t give me much of a buzz, but I did start to feel an ache under my rib. It was probably unrelated
Brooklyn Mate is an artisanal version of Club Mate, the yerba mate-derived soda that people in Berlin drink while they wait to see if they’ll get in to Berghain. It’s not as sweet as Club Mate, though, and I wouldn’t want to mix it with vodka. This one was pretty weak, but I did have some fun imagining an Australian saying “Brooklyn mate.”
Teaonic I Love My Brain
I’ve recently started seeing Teaonic’s drinks in high-end bodegas throughout Brooklyn. In addition to “I Love My Brain,” they make flavors called “I Love My Adrenals” and “I Love My Skinny Body.” This one said it would boost my concentration, improve my memory, and that I would gain mental clarity. It tasted like unsweetened mint tea and did absolutely nothing for my brain (it’s caffeine free), but I don’t really think I’m the target audience.