Beer Goggled

By Max Rothman

Does the hangover cure market look better than it really is?

Hair of the dog, pickle juice or ibuprofen. Greasy breakfast, black coffee, or sports drinks. Chug as much water as humanly possible before bed.

Many have tried and still fail to cure one of life’s constantly recurring maladies, the hangover. Sure, they could drink less or stop drinking altogether to prevent the dread, but for many, that’s an unrealistic sacrifice. Drinking, after all, is often about forgetting consequences, not preparing for them.

However, a still-emerging category in the beverage industry – recovery drinks – is hoping that there is a fortune to be made in helping provide that preparatory insurance against the day after. (How fast-growing is the category? Look at the 25 or so products that are in our roundup, and you’ll see there are plenty of companies chasing the whiskey-hobbled.)

Some products claim they prevent the hangover before it happens, while others try to remedy the ailment when it’s already pounding your shriveling brain. Investors see the benefit, at least: for hangover prevention drink Mercy, the investor list includes boldface types like actress Gwyneth Paltrow, MTV founder Bob Pittman, NBA player Jared Jeffries, NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, and Richard Kimball, former managing director at Goldman Sachs and current Mercy chairman.

Entrepreneurs believe the key to having those financial bets pay off is for their products to work.

“People increasingly are demanding observable benefits,” said Luc Tomasino, CEO of Mercy. “They’re demanding things that do work and they’re willing to pay for them.”

Tomasino stokes the faith of investors by comparing Mercy to a summer staple: sunscreen. Before you go the beach, it has become near second nature, if your genes call for it, to lather yourself and block sun rays from burning your skin. He envisions Mercy as part of a similarly protective ritual, only one performed before going out to the bar.

“Check and make sure I have my keys to the house,” he said, “my wallet, my scarf, my hat, and make sure I have Mercy somewhere accessible nearby, hopefully in the fridge.”

Here’s how Tomasino says Mercy can help: when alcohol enters the bloodstream, it depletes levels of glutamine, the body’s most abundant amino acid and one that aids the immune system, among other responsibilities. After a long night of drinking, your sleep could be interrupted as your body stimulates your brain while replenishing its glutamine levels.

Mercy contains a combination of B and C vitamins, amino acids, magnesium, potassium, chamomile extract and milk thistle to flush your body of acetaldehyde, a toxin created when alcohol is broken down by enzymes in the liver. Fewer toxins mean less glutamine production. Better glutamine retention means that you sleep better, even with the booze on board.

“We fortify your body to naturally break down these toxins and get rid of them efficiently and effectively, before they have a chance to settle into your system and lead to the hangover,” Tomasino said.

Not a bad argument – if it works. And there are a lot of products out there that are making similar claims using a variety of ingredients, all with some form of scientific explanation that, if both sides of the equation balance, should provide not just hangover relief, but a highly profitable business proposition.

And yet all of those brands are being outsold by companies that seem to try very hard to avoid any kind of mention of the word “hangover.”

While he encourages consumers to use Mercy as an everyday beverage or mixer, Tomasino said that the company’s core message is hangover prevention.

Monster Energy Co.’s marketing department has long distanced the company’s Rehab subline from that “h-word,” in fact, although the word “Rehab” does carry certain implications borne out by web copy that says the product “quenches thirst, fires you up, and brings you back after a hard day’s night.”

That less-precise wording is certainly broader than the single function that Mercy is sticking by. It’s also less precise. Even the name is based on the company’s relationship with the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and its “Rehab Pool Party.” Similarly, Rockstar Energy sells four different forms of Rockstar Recovery: lemonade, orange, grape and tea/lemonade. And while the word “recovery” sits boldly below the Rockstar moniker on each can, there’s no mention of the word hangover.

The value of that imprecision? The two companies created nearly $500 million in additional revenue last year, and the Rehab and Recovery lines have been the fastest-growing part of the energy drink category. And these products contain many of the same ingredients and effects as hangover cures, like prickly pear and milk thistle, even high-electrolyte coconut water. So why don’t Monster, Rockstar and other drinks want to be known as hangover cures?

Ron Fournier, for one, says it’s because that category just doesn’t sell.

Fournier, who is the vice president of sales for Blue Coast Beverages, a premium beverage distributor, said that while Monster Rehab continues to be a top seller, not one of his 38 sales guys have asked him about hangover cure products. Fournier said the demand isn’t there and he just doesn’t believe in the category.

“Any of them that we have taken on, really, we haven’t seen any type of success at all,” he said. “In fact, we’ve deleted most of them.”

Fournier suggested that Monster Rehab and other products like it could be separating themselves from hangover cures so they can market the products as full-spectrum electrolyte-and-coconut-water-based recovery drinks, rather than just a single-function beverage.

This could also mean that hangover cure products are still regarded more as hype than as profit drivers.

“I have no interest in distributing any of them, at least at this moment,” Fournier said.

Maybe that’s because, science aside, from a social viewpoint, hangover cures carry a stigma.

Kelly Heekin, the president of Hoist, used to market his isotonic sports drink as a hangover reliever because, knowing he couldn’t trump Gatorade or Powerade, he thought curing hangovers could be a point of differentiation.  On weekends, sales boomed. But here’s the problem:

“We had a lot of people telling us they love our drink, but they couldn’t drink it at work,” he said.

Other products in the category, most notably Code Blue, have made similar marketing shifts. Still, those who believe in the recovery category are driven by the faith that, in time, an effective cure will be a profitable one.

Paul Shike, the president of Security Beverages Company, the maker of hangover preventative Security Feel Better, said that the hangover cure category will definitely expand once consumers are better educated on the efficacy and, in turn, demand increases.

“The big boys, I think, are sitting back and waiting to see what happens,” Shike said. “At some point, they’re going to jump in and they’ll probably acquire somebody who gets a good jump in the market or they’re going to come up with something they think is their own.”

Shike has never doubted the efficacy of these products¬—it’s what lured him into the business. However, when he goes to a store and sees consumers picking hangover cures by price differences, he knows that there’s still more marketing to be done. His team has visited restaurants, bars, liquors stores and wine tastings, and encouraged those who try the products to note the differences in quality and share their experiences with others.

“It’s an education issue,” he said, “especially with a product like ours, where we have a premium price because of the ingredients.”

While Shike and Tomasino feel confident in the abilities of their hangover cures, their ability to gain consumer approval also faces another obstacle, the doubts of the medical establishment. Dr. Catherine Ulbricht, Co-Founder of the Natural Standard Research Collaboration and Senior Attending Pharmacist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that she recommends prevention instead of treatment such as hangover cures.

“They contain a wide array of ingredients, including, sometimes, high amount[s] of caffeine, and natural products not substantiated by science to be effective, so you are potentially taking a risk,” Ulbricht said of hangover cure products.

She noted that chronic, excess consumption of alcohol could lead to dehydration, vitamin deficiency, electrolyte imbalances and other ailments. While she admitted that some hangover products could help negative reactions and make a consumer feel better, Ulbricht said they “are not true cures.”

“The real cure,” she said, “is when the alcohol has cleared your body and related imbalances rectified.”

Still, Americans love to put their bodies in the state where the alcohol must be cleared, and there’s precious little research into the compounds that these companies say can clear it.

A study from 2000 by Jeffrey G. Weise, MD, et al., noted that of the more than 4,700 medical articles written about alcohol intoxication, only 108 have addressed hangovers. The study also notes that hangovers cost the U.S. approximately $148 billion a year and 25 percent of college students reported that they had experienced a hangover in the previous week.

Of the few studies that have been conducted, concrete answers are hard to find. Natural Standard conducted a study that graded the evidence of several therapies for alcohol withdrawal and related conditions. Ingredients found in varying recovery products, such as borage seed oil and globe artichoke, were graded with a “C” for unclear or conflicting scientific evidence. Other ingredients commonly found in recovery drinks such as ginseng, guarana, n-acetyl cysteine, taurine, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin C, weren’t graded and were labeled as traditional or theoretical uses, which lack sufficient evidence.

And the combination of that loss of efficiency and that gray area of traditional or theoretical uses is what keeps hangover cure drink entrepreneurs hopeful that time will eventually prove they have a viable market.

They already believe in their formula. Now they’re just waiting for consumers to latch onto their idea; to think of going out, then think of Mercy or Security Feel Better, and then think of a placid morning. Just as we associate Rockstar Energy with extreme sports, Vitaminwater with fitness, and Coca-Cola with Christmas, hangover cure producers strive for consumers to link their products to a common sentiment.

“We all want to live longer,” Tomasino said. “We all want to look young, feel young and feel good. This is what this is really all about. This is about the fountain of youth.”