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Straight up, with a dash of vitamin B

December 25, 2002|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

THE art of mixing cocktails is looking a little more like science -- weird science. The young, trendy and health-attuned have quietly started blending energy drinks into their martinis and more.

At fashionable parties and clubs in Los Angeles and New York, liquor companies have joined hands with makers of fortified beverages to further lift the spirits of the spirits business. Their inspiration: the runaway success of the high-caffeine drink Red Bull as a cocktail mixer over the past few years among the late-night set.

Now cocktail menus are featuring drinks that combine the numbing effects of alcohol with the revitalizing properties of typical sports-drink ingredients such as taurine, vitamins and yerba mate. Among the 20 exotic martinis served at Mirabelle in West Hollywood is the Dragonfruit Vitaminwater Martini -- a concoction of vodka, pineapple juice and the lightly fruity water made by Glaceau and fortified with taurine, an amino acid. In Los Feliz, the bar at Vermont restaurant keeps a supply of Rescue Green Tea Vitaminwater handy for the Rescue Martini, a blend of vodka and the water's B vitamins, rosehips, chamomile and hibiscus.

Though Vitaminwater founder J. Darius Bikoff has personally placed samples of his nutrient-enhanced waters in the hands of bar owners, hoping to jump-start the trend, as often, the "energy cocktails" have emerged on their own as a kind of cult item among fashion trendsetters.

After spotting the peach flavor called Endurance in a corner grocery, Melissa Lemer, a partner with Cabana, a public relations firm, became "a hard-core Vitaminwater drinker." Now she stocks the nutrient drinks at her company's functions, such as the recent "Beauty Buffet," a daylong promotion in which new products are introduced to L.A.'s fashion insiders. Without prompting, Lemer said, guests began mixing "Vitamin Vodkas" -- essentially, spiking their Vitaminwater.

"People who wanted to stay sober could drink them straight and people who wanted a cocktail could mix it," Lemer said. "They even put some in champagne."

Though Vitaminwater comes in such formulas as Energy Tropical Citrus and Endurance Peach, Bikoff said he's not promoting the drinks as either nutritional supplements or as cocktail mixers, but as low-calorie, nutrient-enhanced beverages.

"We don't make any health claims," he said.

Whatever the case, he's clearly on to something: This month, an Idaho distiller introduced a potato vodka enhanced with sports drink ingredients. It's called Zygo, and it's jazzed up with peach, mandarin orange and vanilla, as well as the amino acid taurine, d-ribose (a sugar) and two stimulants: guarana and yerba mate.

Centro-Fly, a New York bar, is already mixing a Zygo Fly (with Cointreau, grapefruit juice and soda) and a Zygo to Heaven (with orange juice). The vodka itself has a syrupy, peachy flavor with a distinctly medicinal background, not unlike a chewable children's vitamin. Luis Barajas, founder of the avant-garde fashion magazine Flaunt, likened it to "an energy drink mixed with vodka."

The vodka's supplements have more often been used to help athletes finish marathons, but now, they've become handy caffeine replacements for nights, very late nights, of marathon partying.

"It's about being able to sustain your evening," said Ron Zier of Zygo Distillers. "It's about being able to make the after-after party."

Ads for Zygo call the enhanced vodka a "morning vodka." To the dance-until-dawn drinkers, "morning" means after midnight, not sunrise.

Maintaining party stamina is tough in California, where cigarettes, and their nerve-jangling nicotine blast, are relics of the bar scene. In New York City, where bars stay open until 4 a.m., the party goes on that much longer.

"People are trying to figure out a way to keep themselves up at night without going any farther," Barajas said. "So energy drinks are what they are doing."

Barajas recently served Zygo vodka at a New York party for Robert Downey Jr. The party, perhaps predictably, went late.

Barajas noticed that party-goers drank more and longer, exactly as the creators had hoped. The tagline on Zygo's trade brochures reads, "Wake up and smell the profits."

Just because the drinks contain "healthy" ingredients doesn't make them healthier. For example, Susan Bowerman, assistant director for the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, said she worried that the stimulants could mask the effects of the alcohol and delay the cue to stop drinking.

As far as the other added ingredients, "the amount of vitamins in these drinks is negligible," she said. "They might make people think that they are doing themselves some good by replacing some of the vitamins that are needed to metabolize the alcohol -- B vitamins in particular. But, since these waters provide such a small percentage of the RDA, and since B vitamins are quite widespread in the food supply, there is no nutritional advantage."

Sports drinks often have a relatively low sugar content, which can raise the rate the stomach empties and fluids are absorbed. In other words, you might just soak up that alcohol faster and get drunk easier with a sports tonic in your cocktail.

Maybe that's why the combination is so alluring. In fact, in the not so distant past, Gator Drivers were the intoxicating beverage of choice for the hearty, especially skiers. They'd load up the trunk with partially emptied Gatorade bottles, add vodka, and let the bottles freeze to slush on the way to local ski resorts.

In the morning, recalled one Gator Driver fan, "We skied pretty good." Or perhaps, they just thought they did.

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