Red Bull vs. Lion in bar-mixer duel — Energy drinks taking off the gloves

One of the biggest changes to hit cocktail culture in the last decade came when ‘Red Bull-vodka’ became as commonplace an order as ‘rum and Coke.’

Using Red Bull as a mixer, something the company doesn’t encourage, was ingenious. The energy drink was already uber-trendy, and high-profile marketing in clubs and bars would only up the hip factor.

Its taste – described by some imbibers as a medicinal Mountain Dew – was like no other. Spiked with caffeine and taurine, an amino acid that dials up the heart rate, Red Bull was viewed by club kids as a desirable mixer with alcohol.

So it’s no surprise that its success in bars has been targeted by everyone from Coke to Pepsi, from small Colorado start-ups such as Go Fast to the former Red Bull employees who founded Roaring Lion.

The battle of the bars is underway, and the scuffle for market share has turned rough and tumble.

Red Bull’s success in North America created a frenzy in the beverage industry. Established heavyweights and small players alike began cranking out imitations (St. Louis rapper Nelly recently jumped on the train with his Pimp Juice), but only two companies are serious contenders in the ‘on-premise’ nightclub market.

One of them is Rockstar, launched with a bang out of San Francisco and Las Vegas. Competitively priced and shipped in 16- ounce fat-boy cans (Red Bull and most other brands come in sleek 8.3- ounce cans) it was attractive to bar managers wanting to decrease waste and boost profits. And the kids glommed onto its claim of a liver-rejuvenating ingredient, milk thistle.

Energy drinks in clubs and bars have changed the way people party. Some medical professionals have raised concerns about mixing alcohol with energy drinks, especially those with big doses of caffeine and taurine. They warn that the combo could create potentially fatal heart arrhythmias, especially when strenuous exercise is involved.

But the newest and perhaps most serious contender targeting Red Bull’s crown is Roaring Lion, and it was clear from the start that these boys – all Red Bull expatriates – knew what they were doing.

They knew what the bars disliked about Red Bull: the wasted product, the company’s perceived reluctance to partner with liquor companies for theme nights, the space it took to store the cases of cans – and the very fact it came in cans.

Roaring Lion addressed all those issues. They put their syrup- product in a bag-in-a-box and sold it on the soda-dispensing gun. They also formed relationships with multiple vodka companies and Jagermeister, launching their product two years ago to astounding numbers.

First year: The company enjoyed $900,000 in sales. After 16 months in business, the company was in the black. Second year: $2.5 million in sales gave the company an even bigger boost.

Roaring Lion now boasts 2,600 accounts, making it a serious competitor.

‘(Red Bull) can’t stand that we’re taking so much of their business,’ said Chris Hannemann, the national sales manager for Roaring Lion and the former marketing director for Red Bull Los Angeles. ‘They’re losing all the cool bars, and they’re making it worse by hassling them and threatening lawsuits.

‘The Goosetown (Tavern) in Denver has really been hassled by Red Bull,’ he said.

The Austria-based Red Bull at first declined comment on Roaring Lion or any of the bars it has lost to the new kid on the block. But Patrice Paul in Red Bull North America’s communications department later said the only lawsuits being brought up are against bars that are passing off non-Red Bull products as Red Bull.

‘We want to make sure to protect our brand to make sure that (consumers) are getting what they’re paying for,’ Paul said.

Hannemann says he finds it irritating that Red Bull markets itself as an energy drink, even though they’ve had such success as a mixer.

‘It’s very hypocritical,’ he said. ‘They don’t co-promote or co- brand with liquors, meaning you won’t see a Red Bull-Stoli night, even though you know darn well that Red Bull opens a market in the bars first and then it trickles down to the retail segment.’

For all the talk of local bars supposedly in heated disagreement with Red Bull – including the folks at the Goosetown Tavern, which recently made the switch – nobody wants to comment on it. Some declined to talk about it for fear of legal retribution; others simply weren’t interested in fueling the fire.

‘But customers don’t really care if it’s Red Bull or it’s some other energy drink,’ said Eun Sommatino, office manager for Goosetown and the Red Room. ‘And for us, there’s less waste because it’s served on the gun and you’re making drinks to order instead of having cans that are only partially used. Plus we’ve been very happy with Roaring Lion as a product.’

Roaring Lion’s impact in Denver is made more obvious by the many we-do-not-serve-Red-Bull signs the company provides to new accounts. The signs are meant to head off charges that the bars are selling Red Bull when they aren’t.

Bartenders and barflies alike have heard stories of Red Bull threatening its clients into retaining the product.

The Larimer Lounge, a small rock club in Denver’s warehouse district, is switching from Matador, another bag-in-the-box energy drink, to Roaring Lion because it tastes better, owner Scott Campbell said.

‘I guess we’ll have to put one of those signs up, too,’ said Campbell, ‘which is fine by me, because I don’t want any trouble from Red Bull.’

The Ogden and Bluebird theaters, owned by promoter Nobody in Particular Presents, joined other Colfax Avenue bars and now carry Roaring Lion. And they’ve posted signs.

‘(Roaring Lion is) so much easier and also a lot cheaper,’ said Jim Norris, the venue manager at the Ogden and the Bluebird. ‘And now I only have to store one little box instead of having 10 cases stacked up in the back.’

Norris was won over by Roaring Lion’s sales pitch, which goes something like this: Red Bull, at approximately $1.33 per can, is one of a bar’s most expensive mixers. The same amount of Roaring Lion would cost a bar 53 cents, saving 80 cents per can, or 60 percent. If a bar went through 50 cases of Red Bull a month and switched to Roaring Lion, the company says the bar would save $990 a month, or $11,880 a year.

“We changed everyone’s paradigm of thinking in bars,” said Hannemann. “It’s a functional drink, and when people drink it, people dance longer, they drink longer, and they stay in your club longer.” What’s exactly in those power cocktails?

What are Go Fast-Captains, you ask? With the rapidly changing world of energy drinks and their growing popularity in bars, drink names are becoming even more difficult for the folks behind the pine to remember. With the help of a few bartender friends and yours truly, The Post’s bar columnist, we’ve come up with the dos and don’ts of energy drink mixmasterdom.

Red Bull: This is what we were weened on, where we learned that mixing 80-proof liquor with excessive amounts of caffeine and taurine and ginkgo was fun – in moderation, natch. Red Bull is the original, and we’re not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that it tastes the best with both vodka and Jagermeister, but it does.

Roaring Lion: This is not Red Bull, although it’s obviously doing everything in its power to become the next Red Bull. The company admittedly bought the rights for a flavor that tastes almost exactly like Red Bull, with an emphasis on almost. Roaring Lion is a treat with vodka, seeing as how vodka – ideally – goes virtually unnoticed in any cocktail. But Roaring Lion-Jager? No. The medicinal tinges are illuminated when Jager’s introduced to the mix.

Rock Star: Quite the opposite here. Rockstar-Jager – yes! The drink is almost as good as Red Bull-Jager, which at first seemed like a disastrous pairing. Rockstar-vodka, no. You wouldn’t drink Rockstar on its own, so why mix it with a neutral flavor? For some reason, Rockstar mixes beautifully with Midori and/or peach schnapps. Experiment.

Go Fast: It’s the local guy done good. The unusual citrusy taste makes Go Fast the only one out of these four that didn’t go straight after Red Bull’s medicinal aesthetic. A favorite at the Red Room is the Go Fast-Tuaca, a sugary treat. Ordered in a tall glass at the Cap City Tavern, and it’s a right-proper drink. Rum options include Bacardi O or Captain Morgan for, natch, Go Fast-Captains.

Ricardo Baca Denver Post Staff Writer
Denver Post
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