After going through my latest case of 5 Hour Energy shots (a relative bargain at $1.60 a bottle in bulk), I got curious about what it would cost to make your own energy shots. I took the red pill and I'm still finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes.

First thing I found out, caffeine is cheap. I picked up 400 grams of caffeine from for less than $23 when I "subscribed" to auto-shipping it. The average can of Mountain Dew contains 54 milligrams of caffeine. That means I picked up the same amount of caffeine you'd find in 7,400 cans of Mountain Dew for the cost of .3 cents per can. With coffee running 2x-3x the caffeine of Mountain Dew, I realized the caffeine in that $3 cuppa from Starbucks has a street value of less than a penny.

Second thing I found out, caffeine is bitter. If you just take the powder, stir it into a drink, and chug, it's mostly going to taste bad. I say mostly because putting milk in your coffee seems to have some science behind it. Of the different things I stirred straight caffeine powder into, milk neutralized the bitterness fastest and best. A little milk, some Kahlua flavored syrup, and a scoop of caffeine... perfect buzz shake.

I researched ways to neutralize and minimize the bitterness and found out three things:

  1. Caffeine powder needs time to dissolve. If you drink the beverage right after stirring it in, it will be more bitter than if you give it a few minutes.
  2. The warmer the water, the more caffeine you can dissolve in it. Boiling water can dissolve 670 grams of caffeine per liter and hold it in solution. But as that water gets cooler, the caffeine will precipitate back out. At room temperature, the solubility of caffeine in water drops to about 21 grams per liter.
  3. The best way to add it to beverages is to dissolve it in water first. Not only does that pre-dissolve it so you don't need to wait, but adding powders to carbonated beverages makes them react almost like you dropped in a Mentos.

Learning the last bullet point allowed me to start successfully adding caffeine to beverages. Having a handy source of pre-dissolved caffeine in an easily measured, non-powder form made experimentation a lot easier. Measuring out 100 milligrams of powder is very difficult and precise work, but if you dissolve a larger, more easily measured amount in an easily measured amount of water, you have a quick and easy way of pouring caffeine shots into carbonated and non-carbonated beverages. Here's my recipe for caffeinated water...

Put 10 grams caffeine in a large measuring cup (1 liter or greater). Pour in enough boiling water to bring it up to 1 liter. Stir. When it's cooled to room temperature, put it in a bottle.

Now you have 1 liter of solution at a concentration of 10 milligrams of caffeine per milliliter of solution. A teaspoon is 5 milliliters, or 50 milligrams of caffeine, which gives you the approximate caffeine of a Mountain Dew. A tablespoon is 15 milliliters, which gives you 150 milligrams of caffeine, approximately equal to a strong cup of coffee (anywhere from 80-180 milligrams), a 5 Hour Energy shot (138 milligrams), or 2 cans of Red Bull (80 milligrams per can). You can add as much as you feel you really need to any drink.

From this point on, it's all about personal preference. I found a quick and easy energy drink that costs less than 25 cents is to take a 1/2 liter bottle of inexpensive drinking water (Costco's is about 10 cents a bottle), take a sip, add a packet of Hawaiian punch or Wyler's lemonade (available at 8 to 10 packets for a dollar at Walmart or Dollar Tree stores), and pour in up to 1 tablespoon of the caffeinated water solution. Cheap and easy energy punch.

If you want to add it to sodas, remember that it is bitter. You will want to add it to sweeter sodas or add a little sweetened syrup. For example, you can pick up a 2.5 liter bottle of lemon lime Shasta at Dollar Tree, giving you an 8 ounce serving for 10 cents. Add a tablespoon of caffeinated water and a tablespoon or two of grenadine and you've got what I call a "Shirley Temple on Speed". Meanwhile, the more sugary Shasta Tiki Punch can stand up to a couple teaspoons of the caffeinated water without help.

ONE CAVEAT ON CAFFEINE: Just as with many legal recreational substances, caffeine is lovely in small doses, and toxic in large doses. It's hard to consume enough caffeine to kill yourself, but you can. If you consume just 5% of what you need to have a heart attack, you can start feeling sick with symptoms like a panic attack. If you know your limits, pay attention to them. If you don't, proceed cautiously.

But What About Vitamins?

Many energy drinks contain propietary blends of herbs, vitamins, and amino acids. The B vitamins are very popular, as are vitamin C and the amino acid Taurine. Some of them contain megadoses while others contain more moderate amounts. This is where things get tricky. You can buy various vitamin supplements in powder or liquid form. They can be bitter, sour, not dissolve well... I made a bottle of "vitamin water" with a bunch of B vitamin complex capsules. It came out an ugly shade of a sort of orangey brown with powder floating on the surface, looking and sort of smelling like a bottle of scummy pond water.

If you like vitamin C, you can buy ascorbic acid, a powdered form of vitamin C. Adding it will be like squeezing some lemon into your drink, so if you use a lot, you'll need to add sweetener to compensate. And, as with any powdered supplement, dissolve it in water before adding it to carbonated beverages to prevent messes.

As much as I'd like to do custom mixes of vitamins and minerals, if it becomes too much work, it stops being something I can do regularly. Enter Vplenish, which is currently $25 for a 2,000 packet box at Amazon (with free shipping and a $5 discount code which is available on the product page as of this writing). It looks like a packet of sweetener you'd get in a restaurant, but it's pretty much neutral in taste and can be stirred into non-carbonated drinks without needing any extra flavorings or sweeteners to compensate. Two packets of Vplenish gives you the approximate vitamin profile of generic vitamin enhanced waters. So, for less than 3 cents, you can vitamin enhance your beverage.

Note that these aren't megadoses like you'll find in some multivitamins or B complex supplements. A packet of Vplenish provides 10% - 30% of the RDA of its various components instead of 1,000% - 3,000%. But the thing about megadoses is there's a valid question of whether your body needs that much or can even use it. Common wisdom is that most of these megadoses are like trying to put more gas in your car when the tank is full. The rest just spills out and makes you pee pretty colors.

Vplenish and the vitamin enhanced waters/punches with low doses take a more moderate approach of topping off the tank instead of flooding it. I take a multi-vitamin and a B supplement in the morning, then top off periodically during the day.

As for other additives like Taurine, guarana, yerba mate, and any number of other vitamins or minerals, you can usually find powdered or liquid versions at your local health food or supplement mart, and you can almost always find them online. Just remember to pre-dissolve any powders you plan to mix into sodas.

Advice For Energy Shots

In these cases, I tend to make a punch at quadruple strength, whether it's sugar free Hawaiian Punch or a punch mix. You're not going to have 6-8 ounces of the beverage to dillute the bitterness of the caffeine and all that sweetening power to counteract it. A quadruple strength punch allows you to get 5-6 ounces worth of punch flavor and sweetener into one shot. You can also do a mix with a flavored syrup at 2 or 3 parts water to 1 part syrup.

Use a 2 ounce shot glass, or save some of your energy shot bottles, wash them well, and re-use them with a funnel. Toss in two packets of Vplenish, two or three teaspoons of of your caffeine solution, and top off with your quadruple strength punch or watered down syrup. Give it a chug and you're good to go.


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