Like something out of a sci-fi frat movie, Americans might someday find themselves choosing among their favorite varieties of powdered alcohol.
Two weeks ago, on April 8, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) quietly approved seven flavors of a brand called Palcohol: cosmopolitan, margarita, mojito, lemon drop, vodka, and rum. The belated revelation this week has sent everyone into a tizzy.
Robert Lehrman, the principal attorney for Lehrman Beverage Law, told VICE News that this is the first powdered alcohol product he’s seen approved in the United States.
“I am astonished because the TTB, and perhaps the federal government, generally tends to be quite cautious and traditional and conservative,” Lehrman said.
Turns out it’s easier in Europe. The commercial advent of getting boozed via powder arrived in 2005 with the introduction in Germany of a product called Subyou. It was 4.8 percent alcohol by volume and got some attention when it emerged — but apparently not enough, because powdered alcohol was “invented” again by enterprising Dutch students in 2007. They weren't bashful about targeting the youth market; they were looking to sell their take, Booz2Go, to kids that were under 16.
Even before these brands, alcohol powder was apparently briefly sold in the US as a food flavoring, but not for use in beverages.
Now we Americans have Palcohol, fit for proper consumption. Or do we? Lehrman, who has focused his career on the federal regulation of alcohol and helped end the 95-year ban on absinthe in the US, said that the TBB is a huge hurdle for Palcohol to have cleared, but noted that several more stand between it and the market.
“I would expect ferocious opposition from whatever incumbent industries are adversely affected, in direct proportion to the threat, and these are not small industries,” Lehrman said. “In most states, it's mandatory to sell spirits through a licensed wholesaler; many of these are big and conservative businesses with a lot invested in the status quo. It’s hard to imagine a state agency being quick to put this in stores.”
The internet might be a different matter. After all, Palcohol's German ancestor Subyou was first sold online. A report by Deutsche Welle noted that word got around that kids under 18 could order Subyou without having to prove their age. (Maybe this is why you've never heard of it.)
Lehrman said that if powdered alcohol successfully wends its way through America's regulatory system, it would potentially cause quite a stir everywhere from sports stadiums and concert venues to cruise lines and schools.
Palcohol wholly acknowledged this disruptive effect on its old website, where it described the product as a concealable alternative to expensive drinks at concerts and sporting events.
The company’s homepage has since changed.
“There was a page visible on this site where we were experimenting with some humorous and edgy verbiage about Palcohol,” it now reads. “Even though the old verbiage was a bit edgy, we clearly stated then, and still remain adamant, that Palcohol should be used in a responsible and legal manner.”
VICE News reached out to Palcohol creator Mark Phillips to discuss the edgy verbiage.
“None of the edgy verbiage misrepresented the product. It’s just that the media outlets included the edgy comments without including our statement on the same page that the product should be used responsibly and legally,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to perpetuate the edgy comments from our unfinished website.”
But Phillips didn't shy away from telling VICE News about his vision for Palcohol.
“Imagine a regular margarita on a counter,” he said. “Now imagine if you could snap your fingers and the margarita turns into powder. That’s what Palcohol is, without the magic.”
Yep, no magic. A Motherboard report described the chemical process: the carbohydrate powders store ethanol until it’s placed in water or other liquid and returns to its more familiar state. It's not rocket science. The General Foods Corporation applied for a patent for alcoholic powder in 1972.
What Palcohol particularly offers the consumer, Phillips said, is lightweight portability.
“It's a great convenience for the person involved in activities where weight and bulk is a factor, like hiking, backpacking, etc.,” he said. “One package weighs about an ounce and is small enough to fit into any pocket.”
Since its general approval by the TTB last week, Palcohol has already hit a snag. Tom Hogue, the TTB’s director of congressional and public affairs, told VICE News that labels for the product were issued in error and have since been surrendered by the company.
“We have been in touch with the TTB and there seemed to be a discrepancy on our fill level, how much powder is in the bag,” a message on Palcohol's site says, noting the agreement to surrender the labels was “mutual.” “This doesn’t mean that Palcohol isn’t approved. It just means that these labels aren’t approved.”
Phillips and Palcohol are sure to face other issues involving packaging and marketing, Lehrman said, as well as various state and federal agencies who may seek to ban it. And that doesn’t even include the challenge of obtaining liability insurance.
“I really think you should call a good insurance expert and see how loud they laugh about insuring a product like this,” Lehrman said.
He doesn’t think we’ll be seeing Palcohol in a store anytime soon.
Photo via Flickr