Going Smart 

Smart Energy Shots subvert the paradigm.

Elliot Johnson wants to change the way you think about energy drinks. Smart Energy Shots, his Oakland-based company's only product, contains no calories, fat, or alcohol whatsoever. But it does have green tea; B vitamins; citric acid; taurine; stevia extract, described on the label as "an all-natural, zero-calorie alternative to sugar"; and rhodiola, which is a wonderful word to say out loud and also "a natural herb for mental focus." And unlike most energy drinks, Smart Energy isn't designed to be sold in brightly colored cans at 7-Eleven stores or to be consumed in the throes of an all-nighter or by pre-adolescent boys. In fact, it's not being branded as an alternative to traditional caffeine at all, but to alcohol.

"You don't need to be about to jump out of a plane to drink this," said Johnson in an apparent dig at the über-macho, extreme-sports-heavy marketing tropes most energy drinks employ. "We wanted to make something a little more fashionable than your Red Bulls and your Rock Stars — a little more chic." Indeed, Smart Energy comes in a frosted bottle with a cork stopper, is sold exclusively at upscale-ish bars and restaurants — including, locally, La Penca Azul, The Uptown, Chop Bar, and a few others — and, at $29.99 for a 25-ounce bottle, certainly costs as much as some premium liquors. The idea is that with this stuff, you can have all the appearance and all the ritual of a night out at the bar, without actually, you know, having to drink. Mr. Johnson may well make a lot of money from this.

He's an unbelievably hard-working guy, for one. The impetus for the company came when he lost a bunch of weight, completely overhauled his lifestyle, and found himself wanting to drink less. In addition to local distribution deals, he recently inked an agreement to sell his beverages in bars throughout the Midwest, and he appears to be constantly throwing promotional events.

Moreover, Smart Energy is a fairly brilliant idea: It occupies the Venn-diagram overlap of health-consciousness and image-consciousness — which, if you think about it, is a pretty big niche. I imagine women in pointy shoes and men on the Six Minute Abs program positively gulping this stuff down. But it's also appealing to anyone who doesn't want to drink, whether for reasons of health, religion, recovery, or circumstance. (Because it has a negligible amount of caffeine, Smart Energy is also more-or-less safe for pregnant women, and because stevia is sugar-free, it's diabetic-friendly.) Abstaining from alcohol — whether permanently or temporarily — is a personal choice, and what's admirable about Smart Energy is that it allows people to do so without having to either awkwardly sip a Shirley Temple or avoid the bar scene altogether.

The taste of Smart Energy is not unpleasant, especially for those who don't mind the flavor of sugar substitutes. Uncarbonated and clear in color, more tangy than sweet, and decidedly citrusy, it's a different species entirely from most energy drinks — especially with its subtler effect. Johnson likes mixing it with pineapple or orange juice; I think it'd be good served over ice and with a wedge of lime and mixed with club soda. Or vodka.

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