The first thing you notice about the experience of drinking Red Bull Total Zero is the dread: ice-cold, sweaty-palm dread, bone deep, and you're still at least a half-hour away from popping the top and actually swallowing the stuff.
This has to do with the "energy drink" label. Coca-Cola has caffeine in it, as do most popular carbonated beverages, yet these can be purchased and imbibed without causing you to feel as though you are participating in some Roger Corman X-ray-eyes shit; like you are standing on the warm and well-lit and familiar side of a vast black curtain and, with your first sip from the beaker-shaped can, peeking through the folds into The Beyond. Because those—Coca-Cola and Pepsi and Mountain Dew and such—in their packaging and marketing and place in our culture are tasty drinks that impart an energy boost, and Red Bull is spooky energy chemicals in their liquid state. Tab is something you drink; Red Bull is something you do to yourself. Dr. Pepper is a soft drink; Red Bull is a soft pharmaceutical.
Red Bull Total Zero is doubly—triply, quadruply—unsettling: mysterious and nefarious-seeming by way of its "energy drink" label, and then more so because of its odd and instantly suspicious claim to contain zero calories. This is not to say that there's any reason to doubt the zero-calorie claim: rather, taking that claim on good faith, your regular-person non-scientist mind reels at the notion of a zero-calorie beverage that nonetheless imparts energy. Isn't the calorie the unit measurement of energy? Where does the energy come from? What am I about to put into my veins?
The name doesn't assuage your anxiety, either. Red Bull Total Zero. It sounds like they're calling it a fucking loser. My guess is, the original intent was to name it Red Bull Absolute Zero (absolute zero being the theoretical lowest possible temperature, thus making for a name that suggests, like, a total badass XXXtreme, man, the absolute limit, too cool), but somebody wisely pointed out that this might lead some consumers to mistakenly assume that it was a variety of Red Bull that contained crummy vodka straight out of the can, as opposed to later on, when you mixed it with crummy vodka on your own so that you could become both drunk and psychotic at the same time. "Total Zero" has a certain charm, being a ridiculous oxymoron; in a weird way, it might be the perfect name for this product, which gives you energy despite manifestly containing no measurable quantity of it.
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But you haven't even tasted the stuff yet. These ruminations on its name and the "energy drink" category are really just tactics you're using to delay what you know is coming: the hiss-pop of the can being opened, a first sip, a commitment, the commencement of a course of events that may very well end with you gnawing on a stranger's face under a bridge on the evening news. Why dare? For energy! For science! Legend holds that a reporter once asked intrepid olde tymey mountaineer George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest; he shot back, impatiently, "Because it's there." You think of this as you work up the nerve to drink Red Bull Total Zero. You also think about the discovery, many decades later, of the stone-solid frozen mansicle of George Mallory's remains, face-down in a pile of rocks on the lower slopes of the mountain.
The first sip of Red Bull Total Zero tastes like poison—oh God poison I'm going to get cancer aren't I what is this lump oh God—but that's not exactly accurate, because if poison tasted like Red Bull Total Zero, nobody would ever drink poison.
Cannily, the makers of Red Bull have never spelled out on the product's label exactly what its flavor is intended to mimic—the regular non-zero-calorie stuff has a distressingly generic "fruit" flavor—and if the taste of Red Bull Total Zero must be likened to another flavor, I'd say it makes you think of a 12-pack of Fresca that has been simmered in a pan until reduced to a viscous, lightly carbonated syrup. It retains Fresca's alarming chemical edge, that horrible aspartame kick in the face, as well as Fresca's unidentifiably citric accents. And yet, somehow, the flavor of Red Bull Total Zero does not say "desperate diabetic's sad alternative to liquid candy"; rather, it says, "liquid candy that will make you grow a tail."
Still, saying that Red Bull Total Zero tastes like Fresca is kind of a cheat, since the clear follow-up question is, "What the hell does Fresca taste like?" It does taste like Fresca, and they both taste like fruit. Like sinister, shifty-eyed fruit. Fruit from which you would not accept a glass of champagne if you were at a soirée and all the waiters were fruit. They taste like a fruit costume, worn by an assassin.
But evaluating the flavor of Red Bull Total Zero is absurd, like criticizing the color of the bore of the cannon that has been chosen to blast you across the circus; drinking Red Bull Total Zero, like being fired from a cannon, is a (poor) decision that must be judged on entirely different merits. Namely, does it get you fucking jacked?
That's why you drink the rest of the 8.4-ounce can, even though each sip brings a greater certainty that your someday obituary will cause its readers to cross themselves. There's no noticeable difference in your energy level when, 15 or so minutes later, you choke down the last drops with your eyes squeezed shut, and you start to feel a little bit smug about your uninformed pseudo-scientific doubts that a zero-calorie drink could give you an energy boost.
You still won't feel any more energized an hour or so later when it occurs to you that you bought a pack of these damn things and by God, if they're not going to energize you, the least they can do is wet your whistle. Anyway, drinking more of the stuff will give you another opportunity to consider the flavor, and so, for curiosity and/or spite and/or inertia, you crack open a second can and start drinking.
And man, it still tastes like absolute swill, and you notice that although the taste reminds you of artificial grapefruit, the smell is much more reminiscent of artificial strawberry, but it doesn't taste at all like artificial strawberry nor does it smell like artificial grapefruit and I should shave and I haven't shaved any fun patterns into my beard before and are we out of jelly? and hey I've been meaning to paint the closet and is that ant on the window looking at me are they coming for me I knew they'd come for me eventually oh God—and this is when you realize that you've been doing jumping jacks for five minutes and have a nosebleed.
Yes. Red Bull Total Zero gives you an energy boost. Whatever black alchemy enables this, boy howdy does it ever. I can't say this with absolute certainty, but I'm like 99 percent positive that I actually sprang a doppelgänger for several hours on Wednesday afternoon; while I manically jogged in place and sang "I'm So Excited" in the living room, he very calmly prepared dinner, organized my closet, and built a heliport on the roof of my house.
I guess this means that Red Bull Total Zero is… good? Can that be said truthfully? This is where the "energy drink" label pays off: Red Bull Total Zero tastes like an alien abduction, but it's good because what it aims to be good at isn't tasting pleasant, but turning you into a fucking teeth-gnashing dynamo lunatic for several hours. If you can choke the shit down with a smile, more the better—but nobody complains about the mouth-feel of crystal meth, you know?
So, how best to drink Red Bull Total Zero? This depends on who you are. Much as the makers of Red Bull Total Zero would probably like to imagine (and would like us to imagine) that it is a drink for hip yet calorie-conscious nightclubbing types who are looking for an extra boost of energy to keep them rocking and having stylish adventures through the wee hours, I suspect that there are really two groups of target consumers for this stuff.
The first are obsessive adolescent gamers who cannot—will not!—rest until they have leveled up one more time, but whose grocery-shopping parents are concerned about their unhealthful Funyun-based diets. Clearly, the appropriate way for these wayward youths to drink Red Bull Total Zero is not at all, and go mow some friggin' lawns in the sunshine, you derelicts.
The second, much more depressing target group is composed of grown-up office types whose long commutes, demanding jobs, and desperation to remain just ahead of encroaching destitution leave them scant few exhausted hours in the company of their spouses and (obsessively leveling-up) offspring, and who trim minutes from their nightly sleep at both ends of the day so as to feel as though they have some meager portion of their waking lives over which they can truly claim ownership, and who accommodate this by pounding energy drinks so that they won't doze off in miserable hellish gridlocked traffic and kill a busload of children, and who between sitting in a car all morning and sitting at a cubicle all day and sitting in a car all evening have virtually no time to attend to their own health and who are desperate enough to consider a zero-calorie variety of a drink that, calories or no, is almost certainly going to give them terminal ass-cancer, and that's just an eventuality they have to live with because their life does not afford them the luxury of looking more than two sidewalk-squares ahead at any time.
The correct way for this group to drink Red Bull Total Zero is to have a good cry, make a firm resolution, and move to Costa Rica.
Look. Drink Red Bull Total Zero if you want. You're a free consumer and, within legal limits, can put whatever you damn well want into your body. But this stuff is bad news, as a concept, but more importantly as a thing that will ooze across your tastebuds and make them feel bad, and then probably cause all manner of regrettable cellular mutations in the rest of your body. That's a lot to endure for a couple of hours of feeling a little more energized, a little more capable, a little more empowered, like some kind of superhuman robo-king from the future I haven't hopped on the elliptical in a while let's make flan but like lots of flan ALL THE FLAN I AM GONNA BY GOD CLIMB THIS TREE RIGHT FUCKING NOW SAY I WON'T I DARE YOU
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org.