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 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.”