Buzz kill 

Reformulation drives Sparks drinkers to stock up

Sparks drinkers are used to getting a jolt. But even the most hardened consumers of the caffeinated alcoholic drink had trouble swallowing the news that MillerCoors would reformulate the controversial cult beverage.

“I was very pissed,” explains Lance Hughes of the company’s decision to halt production Jan. 10. “It’s silly that one caffeinated beverage that has alcohol in it is to blame for kids being idiots. They shouldn’t stop making it.”

When MillerCoors made the announcement amid allegations of the drink’s dangerous effects, Hughes hatched a desperate plan to hoard as many cans of Sparks as he could afford. His wife, Jessica, filled shopping carts at Rosauers, Safeway and Super Wal-Mart and, as of this week, Hughes counted more than 80 cans—at a cost of about $1.29 a pop—in his stash. He and fellow Sparks fanatic Ross Peterson, who is also hoarding, planned to save the cans for special occasions.

“We were thinking that 80 was sort of a strange number, and thinking of getting maybe 100 or 150,” says Hughes, who is well known as one of the fans who tosses Twinkies to the crowd at Griz football games. “It all depends on payday in February and whether there’s still enough to go pick up.”

Hughes is hardly alone in his tenacious pursuit. Sparks holds a special place in Missoula, with nightlife stalwarts making it a staple of the scene, aging professionals preferring the pick-me-up before a night on the town and college students particularly attracted to the alcohol-caffeine mix. Jack Joseph, president of sales at Summit Beverage, which exclusively distributes Sparks locally, declined to give specific sales numbers, but says he delivers “at least a couple thousand [cases] a month” and the product remains “in high demand.” In fact, there are enough Sparks fans treating its disappearance like some Y2K emergency to have local grocery stores wondering what’s going on.

“I didn’t know what to think,” says Ann Guay, head cashier at the Orange Street Food Farm. “Usually we get a college kid getting one or two cans at a time, but all of a sudden we had people walking through with pretty good amounts. Not everybody, but enough to notice.”

Count Chris Bacon among those who raided the Food Farm. The self-proclaimed “number one Sparks fan” says he’s collected more than 60 cans for future consumption. Bacon’s so obsessed with the drink that he once e-mailed the original manufacturer in hopes of becoming a local representative of the product. He plans to continue scouring supermarkets in search of Sparks and can’t fathom cutting the drink from his routine.

“This is going to make me look awesome,” says Bacon, who manages Edge of the World and serves as president of the Montana Skatepark Association, “but I usually drink it five times a week. I never really drink more than one, but I love it.”

The malt beverage—it tastes like a frothy orange soda, at best—comes in a 16-ounce can and contains 6 percent alcohol by volume, as well as caffeine, taurine, guarana and ginseng. Sparks Plus contains 7 percent alcohol and Sparks Light doesn’t include sugar. MillerCoors purchased Sparks and Steel Reserve in 2006 from McKenzie River Corp. (not to be confused with the local pizza chain) for $215 million. According to MillerCoors, Sparks controls 60 percent of the alcoholic energy drink market.

The company agreed to change the drink’s formula in December after 12 state attorneys general brought a suit against MillerCoors claiming Sparks was dangerous and reduced a drinker’s sense of intoxication. In addition, the suit claimed Sparks was marketed to younger drinkers already drawn to highly-caffeinated drinks like Red Bull.

MillerCoors denied any wrongdoing, and plans to release a new Sparks formula without stimulants.

“We are always willing to listen to societal partners and consider changes to our business to reinforce our commitment to alcohol responsibility,” said company president Tom Long in an official statement.

The settlement stipulates that MillerCoors and its distributors can sell through existing stock of Sparks products beyond the Jan. 10 deadline. Joseph with Summit Beverage says he typically stocks a 30-day supply of everything in the warehouse and that Sparks could be on local shelves into early February.

Bacon and Hughes both admit they’ll probably be healthier without Sparks in their lives, but lament the end of an era. Hughes says the drink helps him rally for football games and nights out after waking early and spending all day as a stay-at-home father. He reminisces about having to hide Sparks around Washington-Grizzly Stadium during game days because jealous tailgaters kept stealing his stash; he says he’ll take extra precautions next season with his limited supply. Bacon recalls once hosting the bar at Total Fest, an annual summer music festival, and temporarily serving nothing but Sparks.

“It was definitely a little different energy that night,” says event organizer Niki Payton.

Other notable Sparks moments include The International Playboys’ farewell concert, which featured “Sparksmosas”—Sparks mixed with champagne—as the evening’s drink special. Frontman Colin Hickey says Sparks got the band through most concerts and tours, but that he’s now trying to move on.

“It’s sad to know that the Sparksmosa is no longer an option for future reunion tours,” he says. “But I’ll live. I’ll probably just buy a 12-pack and I’ll put it in a glass case that says, ‘In emergency, break glass.’”
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