The Ode: Jolt Cola

Jolt was the first energy drink, with all the sugar and twice the caffeine. But it was disguised as a cola, and by the time it rebranded, Monster and Red Bull dominated.

Jolt Cola was born in 1985, when it hit shelves promising all the sugar and twice the caffeine of regular soft drinks. Creators Joseph and C. J. Rapp, a father-and-son duo out of Rochester, N.Y., designed the hyperactive beverage to slay “wimpy” colas.

Jolt was an affront to healthy living when diet sodas were all the rage. Nutritionists hated it. But Jolt’s inventors leapt to its defence. “Who said soft drinks are supposed to be a health product?” the younger Rapp told a reporter in 1986. Caffeine and real sugar, unlike the corn syrup others used, created a tastier cola, he argued.

The drink became a phenomenon in the U.S., Canada and Japan. Students struggling through all-night cram sessions guzzled the stuff. A company rep even appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to promote it. Robert Clamp, CEO of Jolt Company Inc., which makes the beverage, said recently that drinking one’s first Jolt was a rite of passage for American youth.

But the tiny company never put much of a dent in the sales of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Energy drinks eventually became a US$4.9-billion business, and while Jolt was the original, it was disguised as a cola. The company repositioned Jolt as an energy drink in 2006, and packaged it in cans that looked like batteries. But by that time, Red Bull and Monster already dominated the market.

Sales plummeted during the recession. Revenue during the first six months of 2009 dropped more than 50% compared to the same period the year before. Worse, Jolt’s battery cans cost three times more than the regular variety, and the company was locked into a supply contract to use them.

On Sept. 28, Jolt filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing more than $5 million in debts. An asset sale is the only likely outcome. “When you’re dying in a hospital, the first thing they put into you is sugar and water,” Rapp told a reporter in the 1980s. “That’s what Jolt is.” But no amount of sugar, water or caffeine may be enough to recharge Jolt’s tired brand.