The world’s most popular energy drink, Red Bull, jumped, literally, into the Korean market this past August with a launch campaign that included a base jump from N Seoul Tower. It was the kind of display of confidence and swagger I’ve come to expect from the Austrian company that sells 3 billion of its silver and sapphire cans each year.
But Red Bull does run into some stiff local competition. The classic Korean version, Bacchus, has been around for more than four decades and is the go-to energy drink for many locals. Bacchus is also a Korean powerhouse, generating over 128 billion won in revenue each year. Luckily for Red Bull, the two drinks aren’t technically competitors; Korea classifies Bacchus with other health and herbal supplements in the pharmaceutical industry, and it’s commonly found in pharmacies or health stores where Red Bull isn’t stocked.
The iconic glass-bottled drink Bacchus, first sold in the 1960s, was originally marketed as a health-boosting cure-all.
But another of Korea’s homegrown energy drinks, Hot Six, is going head-to-head with the global champion. With a similar taste and look, Hot Six will have to defend its territory against a foreign invader—one that comes with cool stunts, racecars and endless viral marketing schemes.
Putting aside their marketing power, I decided to give each of these stamina supplements a test drive to determine which one actually tastes best and could keep me up at all hours.
The iconic glass-bottled drink Bacchus, first sold in the 1960s, was originally marketed as a health-boosting cure-all. It’s only recently that Bacchus started touting its caffeine content, therefore propelling it into the mainstream market. Talking to a few Korean co-workers, they overwhelmingly said that Bacchus is the preferred energy drink amongst the locals who need a jump-start to get them through their day.
My first impression of Bacchus was that it’s quite similar to Red Bull. It’s got the same overwhelmingly sweet, syrupy flavor, but with an odd, diet soda aftertaste that lingers after the bottle is empty.
When asked to comment, my friends generally agreed that while Bacchus is good at first, the bitter follow-up almost ruins the drink. “That really tastes like a sweet tart,” one friend said, “but the aftertaste is like drinking medicine.” Another agreed that it was “herb-y, like a ‘good-for-you, medicine’ flavor.”
Regarding caffeine potency, I honestly didn’t feel a whole lot different after downing a bottle of Bacchus. That’s not too surprising—at a third of the size of a Red Bull, Bacchus also has about a third of the caffeine. But while there wasn’t a noticeable difference at the time, I realized later that I didn’t feel particularly tired after lunch like I sometimes do.
Hot 6ix (핫식스)
Red Bull isn’t the only energy drink touting a dare-defying stunt to grab the attention of the masses. Hot Six (stylized as “Hot 6ix”), which was released in 2010, is also trying to boost its word-of-mouth appeal by daring to challenge the generally wholesome imagery of Korean advertising with its provocative television commercial—a slim silver can sits on a table while the torso of a woman in a buttoned-up shirt hovers in the background. An anonymous hand reaches in from off screen and opens the can, causing the woman’s blouse to suddenly pop open. The message? Red Bull may give you wings, but Hot Six can help bust out (hopefully, not literally) your inner desires.
Hot Six is basically Korea’s answer to Red Bull. They both come in tall, slim cans, use a silver and dark blue color scheme, and go outside of the norm to market their product. But more importantly, they both taste like liquid sugar. The difference in taste is slight, but it’s enough that I actually prefer Hot Six to its foreign competitor. Hot Six is just a tiny bit milder and it’s not carbonated, so it goes down a lot smoother than Red Bull. I found myself finishing a can of Hot Six without really realizing it, whereas I had to really concentrate on gulping down the other two drinks.
Hot Six did a nice job of warding off my afternoon doldrums and had me up and ready for my afternoon classes with more energy than I can usually manage after lunch. The drink was effective, and I was pleasantly surprised to note that I didn’t have any jitters or experience a caffeine crash later in the day.
Hurling a man off the top of N Seoul Tower is certainly one way to catch the attention of a nation. And it seems as if it worked—Red Bull has been flying off the shelves since its launch this summer, according to an article in the Korea Times. Red Bull has quickly become the leader in energy drink sales, scooping up half of the market in just three months (remember, Bacchus doesn’t count as an energy drink, so its sales figures are excluded here).
But can the hip new kid on the block keep up its stamina in the long run and unseat Korea’s brown-bottled champion? Only time will tell.
A friend summed it up perfectly as she took a swig of the liquid caffeine with a grimace. “Yeah, that’s Red Bull. You either like it or you don’t.”
I have used Red Bull a few times throughout my college career, hoping it would buy me enough time to cram a few more hours’ worth of knowledge into my brain before surrendering to sleep. Most of the time, I chose the drink for its potency, not for its taste. But once I started paying attention to its taste, I could only come to one conclusion—Red Bull is, quite frankly, gross.
It has an oversaturated sweetness mixed with a bit of bitterness that intrudes on your palate after you swallow. The drink is sharp and strong, an effect exacerbated by its carbonation. It’s hard to drink Red Bull quickly—you have to sip it slowly, lest you want the syrupy, bubbly concoction glomming to your throat.
It could be partly a placebo effect from all the extreme marketing, and from all the times my mother has warned me away from overindulging on energy drinks like Red Bull. But when I chugged a can after a particularly exhausting, travel-filled day, I definitely felt a boost. I went from nearly falling asleep during my cab ride home to finishing a lesson plan, updating my blog and doing my Korean homework without nodding off even once. Now, that’s what I call “having wings.”
All three energy drinks can be readily found at most convenience stores, especially at GS25 and Family Mart, and pharmacies, in addition, sell Bacchus by the case. If you want to stock up for the long week ahead, larger supermarkets also sell the drinks in large cases. As far as prices go, the local products are predictably lower in cost, with Bacchus at 700 won per bottle and Hot Six at 1,000 won. The cost for imported caffeine? One can of Red Bull goes for 2,900 won, nearly triple the price of a Hot Six.
For me, the obvious choice to keep my eyes open even after a long day would be Hot Six. Both its competitors had serious flaws. Bacchus was bitter and didn’t live up to its energy-boosting promise. Red Bull, while effective, didn’t stack up in the taste category, and the price difference is also hard to swallow. Hot Six is readily available, cheap and, most importantly, edible.