'All the Sugar and Twice the Caffeine': The Electrifying History of Jolt Cola

Kimmy Lindell Ekström, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Kimmy Lindell Ekström, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Gay Mullins had seen enough. Mullins, a retired research associate at the University of Washington Medical School, had garnered national attention in 1985 for his highly organized rejection of New Coke, the controversial reformulated soft drink that was intended to replace Coca-Cola. His Old Cola Drinkers of America organization had more than 100,000 members, and he boasted that it was his influence that had forced Coca-Cola to revert to Coke Classic.

But Mullins wasn’t satisfied. Coke Classic was sweetened with cheap high fructose corn syrup, not cane sugar, which he considered a betrayal of soda standards. In 1986, Mullins declared that he had made a permanent switch to a new beverage brand—Jolt Cola. Not only did Jolt contain real sugar—a whole 10 teaspoons’ worth of it—but it contained 5.9 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce, which was twice what Coke or Pepsi had. It was also just under the Food and Drug Administration’s cap of 6 milligrams for soft drinks.

Mullins, a soda purist, was one of two major demographics being targeted by Jolt, an upstart soda company founded in 1985 by the Rochester, New York-based father-and-son team of Joseph Rapp and Carl Joseph “C.J.” Rapp. As more and more soda brands moved increasingly toward artificial sweeteners and fewer calories, the Rapps wanted to harken back to the olden days of soda parlors. To the Rapps, soda was meant to be a treat, not a health food. Described by one consumer as “liquid speed,” Jolt would electrify the soft drink industry.

 

Joseph Rapp was no novice in the beverage market. He owned a Canada Dry bottling plant for nearly 40 years before retiring in 1979. Around the same time, Rapp attended a meeting of soft drink distributors and watched as representatives from 7-Up tried to entice them with Like Cola, a new product that had a reduced amount of caffeine. Rapp said that if the industry kept up the practice of taking out ingredients, he’d just start putting them back in—and that’s exactly what he wound up doing.

Rapp and his son C.J., who would become the company's president, spent the next six years testing 114 different formulas to arrive at a final, potent mixture of a highly-caffeinated soda that used real sugar. C.J. Rapp believed that Coke and Pepsi had diluted soda to the point where consumer palates had been altered. He intended to deliver what he and his father considered the real thing. “All the sugar and twice the caffeine” became their slogan.

Jolt Cola had a regional release in the Rapps's home base of Rochester in April 1986. After being stocked in 26 Wegmans locations, the product moved briskly—bolstered in large part by the novelty factor of what C.J. often referred to as it being a “naughty” drink, or something slightly forbidden. The effort soon expanded outside of New York, with Jolt signing franchise agreements with 20 states that spring and summer.

Jolt’s success was predicated on two strategies employed by the Rapps. The first was distribution: Because most bottlers had existing relationships with soda giants Coke and Pepsi and were unable or unwilling to manufacture another soft drink brand, Jolt relied heavily on beer distributors to get their product on shelves. Since soda and alcohol aren’t in direct competition, it was a beneficial arrangement for both parties.

The second and arguably more important aspect to Jolt’s success was marketing. Unable to compete with the massive ad budgets of the major soda companies, C.J. took a sensationalistic approach, arguing that consumers were tired of the “parade of wimpy-tasting colas” and that Jolt represented a return to a classic and undiluted approach.

 

The nutritional profile of Jolt was fodder for much criticism. Health advocates argued that a drink ostensibly made for children containing such large amounts of caffeine was inadvisable. One critic, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest health advocacy group in Washington, called it “reprehensible.” C.J. countered that it was still one-fifth of that found in coffee, which had 31 milligrams per fluid ounce. He also reported that his 2-year-old son was “an avid Jolt consumer.”

The Rapps had no illusions that Jolt would ever be intruding on the big two soda brands, which commanded the majority of the market share of the $22.2 billion dollar soft drink industry. But with a market that large, even 2 percent would represent a fortune. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite get there.

Sales of Jolt reached $1 million in 1986 but then dropped 44 percent the following year before settling into a 0.1 percent market share. Despite those modest sales numbers, Jolt had made it through the initial fad nature of the drink to settle into a steady business. It had succeeded in expanding. Within a year, Jolt was available in 44 states and Canada. There was a campaign targeted toward college students that promoted the idea of a “Jumper Cable” drink that consisted of Jolt mixed with rum. It also received a hearty endorsement from sugar farmers, who were happy that a new drink embraced the real thing as opposed to an artificial sweetener.

Jolt Cola promised soda devotees a pure soft drink experience.J Horsefjord, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Jolt also took notice of a new demographic: computer programmers. As Silicon Valley prospered and the software industry blossomed, many turned to Jolt in an effort to keep coding long into the night. Jolt snagged a cover story in Dr. Dobb’s Journal, a popular computer magazine at the time. Software Development began handing out a Jolt Award annually for the best computer book or software.

The drink received considerable mainstream attention as well, getting invaluable publicity in films like 1992’s Wayne’s World and 1993’s Jurassic Park. Jolt had established itself as a viable competitor in a crowded beverage market, although in some ways its pioneering spirit would ultimately prove to be a problem.

 

With twice the caffeine of regular sodas, Jolt had effectively ushered in a new beverage category: The energy drink. Brands like Red Bull, which was introduced in 1987, took the concept further, adding ingredients that provided more of an alertness spike. Once a novelty, Jolt was now part of an increasingly crowded field.

It was a desire to elevate its energy profile that may have been Jolt’s undoing. In 2006, the company introduced a new 23.5 ounce aluminum can with a screw-on top that resembled a battery. It was an eye-grabbing container, but it was also expensive to produce—as much as three times the cost of a standard can. As sales waned, Jolt was obligated to buy 1 million of the custom cans to use in manufacturing the drink.

Within a few years, Jolt was under new ownership, and C.J. Rapp filed a $31 million lawsuit against the private equity firm, Emigrant Capital, that had taken over following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing—which was later dismissed—claiming he had been forced out and that the company was burdened by a grow-at-all-costs strategy. Jolt was essentially shelved for the next several years before returning in 2017 under new management. Now in 16-ounce cans, the advertising was a long way from C.J. Rapp’s initial proclamations. Read one press release: “This is not a drink for children.”

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Blubber Boom: Reliving the Disastrous Tale of Oregon's Exploding Whale—50 Years Later

Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Haliep/iStock via Getty Images (Whale) // revenaif/iStock via Getty Images (Explosion)

The 75 or so people who had gathered on the shore just south of Florence, Oregon, on November 12, 1970 stood at a safe distance and waited for the dynamite to go off. The explosives had been buried under the landward side of a 45-foot-long, 8-ton sperm whale. The mammal would feel nothing when it exploded; it had washed ashore several days before and was long dead.

Its status as a non-living organism was, in fact, the source of the problem. The whale had begun to emit a putrefying stench that repulsed beachgoers. It simply could not remain in place. Its fate was left up to the Oregon State Highway Department, which had no experience relocating whale carcasses and decided to treat it as they would a massive boulder that needed to be removed.

The issue was that this was no boulder. It was a whale. And no one was sure exactly how much dynamite it would take to reduce it to bite-sized pieces of blubber that seagulls and other scavengers would eat. To be on the safe side, 20 cases—or approximately one half-ton—of explosives were used. What happened next is something Florence locals still talk about nearly 50 years later.

 

It’s not always clear why whales strand themselves on land. Sometimes, an injury or illness weakens them to the point they can no longer swim, so they simply wash ashore. Orca whales might chase prey and then find themselves in shallow water—and unable to get back to the open ocean.

A beached sperm whale.Ablestock.com/iStock via Getty Images

However the whale near Florence found itself on the beach, it quickly began to make a posthumous impression. Visitors’ curiosity soon gave way to repulsion as the whale decomposed. Because the beach in Lane County was a public right of way, and nearby roads had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour to observe, the task of dealing with the whale was left up to George Thornton, the assistant district highway engineer of the Oregon State Highway Department, and his team.

It had been a while since a whale had washed ashore in the area, and no one knew exactly how best to deal with it—though various solutions were proposed. One idea was to simply bury the whale in the sand in an oceanside grave, but there were concerns the incoming tide might cause it to resurface. Another suggestion was to cut up the corpse, but there were no volunteers for what would amount to an incredibly unpleasant and time-consuming job hacking away at the blubber. Burning it was also impractical.

That left the seemingly rational option of blowing it up, which dead whales sometimes do naturally; the build-up of gases like ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and sulfide can result in a gory burst of guts spewing forth. But Thornton needed a more potent blast. He consulted with Navy munitions experts who theorized that, with an explosion, the whale would be reduced to chunks that would head toward the Pacific Ocean. Any lingering pieces could be retrieved by workers later.

Local news station KATU sent reporter Paul Linnman and photojournalist Doug Brazil to the scene via helicopter to cover the event. The two arrived and began filming a segment that included an interview with Thornton and a dispatch from Linnman with an enormous dead whale in the background.

 

At 3:30 p.m., spectators and the reporters were asked to move back roughly a quarter-mile away. At 3:45 p.m., Thornton ordered the explosives to be detonated. The scene was captured by the KATU team.

At first, locals cheered the spectacle, which resembled a building demolition. But cheers soon gave way to panic as it became apparent that the half-ton of dynamite had been insufficient to atomize the whale. Large chunks of blubber sailed over their heads and landed with a thud at their feet. Smaller pieces pelted their bodies. The smell of putrid whale oil engulfed the scene. In a spectacular denouement, a giant piece of whale at least 3 square feet in size landed directly on a brand-new Cadillac, smashing the top and blowing out the windows. The vehicle's owner, Walter F. Umenhofer, had wanted to meet a business partner at the detonation ceremony.

Incredibly, no one was injured. But as locals beat a retreat, it became obvious that further action would have to be taken. A large portion of the whale remained; it was eventually moved using a bulldozer and buried on the beach. Smaller bits of blubber were collected and either discarded or covered in sand. Seagulls that had been expected to feast on the remains were scared off by the explosion and remained wary of the area for some time.

For years, Thornton refused to discuss the incident, slightly bashful about the consequences of attempting to blow up a whale. Later, when the footage was circulated online, some people thought it was a hoax. Today, locals celebrate the anniversary by dressing as various whale parts and then running around that very same beach. Just this month, Florence unveiled a new park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incident: Exploding Whale Memorial Park.

When 41 sperm whales beached themselves near the same area in 1979, no dynamite was used; they were instead buried in the sand. As for the Cadillac: The state of Oregon reimbursed Umenhofer for the car. His son, Kelly, who was 14 at the time and went with his father to the beach, would later recall that the car had been bought at Old’s Dunham Cadillac, a dealership that promised buyers—prophetically, it turns out—that they would get “a whale of a deal.”