Los Angeles-based artist, DJ, and mixologist Steph Russ is the Monster-fueled mastermind behind the anarchic, hyperactive cocktail recipe book, Energy: Cocktails to Get You UP. Dedicated to the memory of the world's most diabolical caffeinated malt liquor, Four Loko (which was neutered by the FDA in 2010 over...many, many safety concerns), Energy is a giddy celebration of turbo-charged drinking, with 68 cocktail recipes that pair booze with energy drinks and a host of other exotic add-ins like Pedialyte, poppers, bong water, acid tabs, kombucha, and gas station Viagra.
Russ' book is a technicolor roadmap to debauchery, as well as a tongue-in-cheek parody of elitist mixology culture, and a playful conceptual exercise that imagines taurine-laced signature cocktails for everyone, whether you're into a cough syrup Negronis, Jonestown-themed Kool-Aid concoctions, or protein-packed Muscle Milk daiquiris. Each one is annotated with Russ' hilarious war stories and any applicable warnings. "The last time I drank the MaryKate," she writes of her pitch-black Olsen Twin-inspired brew with Red Bull, Cannabis vodka, and a cocaine chaser, "I lost all of my belongings, went home with my best friend's boyfriend, split my dress up the back like a hospital gown, and walked back the next morning with my bare ass completely hanging out. I loved every minute of it."
We sat down with Russ to chat about her book, the "Four Loko feeling," turning 7-Eleven into your new favorite bar, and the world debut of a gloriously jacked up signature cocktail for Pride that Steph concocted just for us.
Your book is dedicated to Four Loko (R.I.P.). Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to this legendary malt liquor rocket fuel and how it inspired your book?
I just had never had anything like [Four Loko]. It kind of blew my mind, how strong it was! Like most people who drank it, I got really excited about it. When it was regulated, I was so sad. I had like a memorial service for it on the radio. I was one of those people that stocked up and bought a bunch of them, and drank them far past their expiration dates. And then when I finally ran out, I thought, "I don't want to lose this feeling," so I started trying to re-create it in my own recipes. And that was my whole inspiration [for Energy]. I have been making up recipes ever since [Four Loko] was regulated, which was probably about five years ago now.
I think all Millennials of a certain age have had AT LEAST one really jacked up night with Four Loko...
There's some people who say they've seen it, but never tried it, and that kind of blows my mind because I'm sort of the "want to try everything at least once" type person. After Four Loko, I just couldn't stop...
In creating a recipe book, taste obviously matters, but you give equal focus to the way your drinks make people feel, especially with the wilder cocktails that recommend tabs of acid, poppers, and grape blunts as chasers. I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about that balance between crafting delicious cocktails and curating a specific type of buzz, because the pursuit of Four Loko is above all the pursuit of a crazy, drunk ass night.
Oh my gosh, exactly. That's even why [the book] is called Energy: Cocktails to Get You Up, because when I created those recipes, it was about chasing what I like to call "the Four Loko feeling." When I start to create a recipe, I think to myself, what is the goal for the night and how are you gonna get there? I do think of ingredients that would pair well together based on taste, but ultimately I'm thinking of how they pair in terms of effect. When you drink vodka, what happens? When you do acid, what happens? Do they work well together? It's all about trial and error, and using my own life experience.
So your readers are benefitting from years of highly calibrated party mixing?
Yes! From my good decisions and also my mistakes. *laughs*
With all that in mind, Energy is as much a satire on mixology as a straightforward recipe book.
It is definitely satire. I set out to create not only a straightforward recipe book, but also a work of humor. Mixology is trending in a way that takes itself way too seriously. To me, [drinking should be] about fun and release, and an escape from everyday stress. That's what partying is about, at least in my eyes. So I wanted [to create] a mixology book that's also funny, that [doesn't take cocktails] so seriously. When I make the recipes, I like to touch on different subjects – each one is for a different time, or place, or a different type of party. I think about the keys to the identity of that place, or that person, and I try to represent that identity in terms of what would be on the table at the party.
That satire really comes through in some of your wilder, gnarlier creations that include ingredients like bong water, dog hair, placenta, Plan B, etc. I'm wondering how you developed those recipes for drinks that are more conceptual.
Satire is really based in reality. It's an exaggeration of things that are real, and so I [created the book] with this mindset that there's someone out there who tries everything. There are people out there who love bong water. Maybe I'm not one of them, but I have met people who save their bong water in the freezer for times when they need it. I wanted to represent a wide variety of party people. There are some ingredients I haven't tried, obviously, but I have tried most of them! I like to know what I'm setting people up for. There are some [recipes] that are for really specific groups of people or types of parties that I haven't been to yet. I haven't tried gas station Viagra because I don't think I'm really the target market, but there's gonna be someone who reads the book that is. And they should have a recipe just for them! My friend who keeps the bong water in her freezer should have a recipe just for her!
You're creating a big tent for all types of party people.
Like I said, mixology is taking itself way too seriously. There are TONS of people who don't party in this $15 cocktail way, and I wanted to give a shoutout to all those types of people, and say, "You deserve to party, let's party together."
I loved how you had the 'Bouncy Castle' recipe for the moms that have to endure their kid's birthday party. Your recipes are just these amazing portraits of different kinds of people and how they would get fucked up.
Can you imagine?! Can you imagine just having to sit through that and needing a release? There's so many different kinds of people that need that release. I mean, I'm not a mom, so I don't know what you would need in that situation, but I can use my imagination.
Pete Deevakul's photography in the book is so incredible, and really brings the individual personalities of each cocktail to life. Can you tell me how you guys developed Energy's aesthetic?
From the beginning we were pretty much on the same page about the look and the feel of the drinks. I met Pete through my editor, Will [Luckman]. I'd seen some of Pete's photographs in the past on the Internet. He had this work with Fiji water bottles, twisting their logo, doing still lives with the bottles. I thought that was so cool, because I'm really into the branding of energy drinks and the way they're so extreme and over the top. I was really interested in seeing [how Pete would] interpret that aesthetic. So when we got together, we talked about how I see the world of the drink. I just kind of set up the the vibe of the party for each drink, and set up the concepts of who is at this party, who's drinking this, who's it for. He went from there. We worked together on some of them, but a lot he just did independently based on our conversations about the world of each drink.
Your book has such a strong DIY spirit. Many of the recipes offer alternate ingredients and suggestions for personalization. There's a cheat sheet in the back advising readers on how to energize their cocktails at home. What are some key ingredients that the aspiring energy drink mixologist should always keep on hand?
Coming from a background where I've never had money, and have always had this DIY party lifestyle, [I'm] not the type to always keep a liquor closet going at home. It's too costly. So I always tend to go towards cheap, gas-station-style ingredients, and in the book, there's a lot of those. I want it to be accessible.
André champagne. It's like $6, and you don't really need anything of a higher quality. It gets the job done and it tastes good. I like Monster energy drinks because they have the [widest] variety of flavors. I always keep around a lemon, or a sort of neutral flavored Monster. Poppers. Poppers are the quickest pick-me-up. Really anything that is accessible to you, in a cheap way. It doesn't have to be the most expensive ingredients. Like we were talking about [the book] as a satire of mixology, it's also a way to make cocktails and mixology more accessible. It's not about having the most rare and expensive syrups--that's just unrealistic.
So what's your next project, what are you working on now?
I've always been the type to have 70 projects going at once, but in terms of mixology, I've got two focuses right now. First, since I'm in California where medical marijuana is legal, I've been working on creating edibles and topicals – skincare based products. I've been making medicated booze and balms. Then, I'm focusing on [recipes for] relaxing. Sort of the exact opposite of Energy...
The come down.
Exactly. I've made a book dedicated to uppers, and people started asking me, "How do I come down at the end?" I've been working on a book with more relaxing ingredients.
If there was a bar dedicated to your cocktails, what would it look like?
Actually, my long term goal for the next five years is [to own] my own bar. I'm looking for investors right now. To me, it looks like a really playful and colorful place. All the photographs in Energy are super saturated in color, and I envision a space [like that]. It's really playful, it doesn't take itself too seriously. A lot of bars I see these days are really neutral, warm colors and they all kind of look the same. That's why I want my place to be like an adult playground that has its own identity, that's colorful, and doesn't take itself too seriously.
Knowing that this conversation would leave us all jonesing for that Four Loko feeling, Steph hooked us up with an exclusive cocktail to help us get really weird at Pride!
"Pride Parade" starts with a shot of vodka and a rainbow of your favorite energy drinks. You can use any brand of vodka for this cocktail. I suggest starting with the vodka brand sponsoring your local Pride events, as you may be able to get this for free. Energy drink flavors are merely suggestions. Add your favorite flavors--just be sure your "Pride Parade" represents all colors of the rainbow.
Tip: For large parties, try serving Pride Parade as a punch. Chill all ingredients. Blend a bottle of vodka with ice. Pour the vodka slush and one can of each energy drink into a large punch bowl.
Best when chased with poppers (optional).
1.5 oz vodka
1 oz NOS Loaded Cherry
1 oz Monster Ultra Sunrise
1 oz The Red Bull Yellow Edition
1 oz The Red Bull Summer Edition
1 oz Monster Ultra Blue
1 oz NOS Grape
- Fill a large glass with ice
- Add one shot of vodka
- Pour one ounce of each energy drink over vodka and ice
All excerpts fromENERGY: Cocktails to Get You UPby Steph Russ, with photographs by Pete Deevakul, published by powerHouse Books.