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The Strange, True Story Behind BuzzBallz

If somehow you haven’t heard of BuzzBallz, you will.

The line of pre-mixed cocktails with colorful containers and equally colorful names—Strawberry Rum Job and Choc Tease, for example—have been quietly but aggressively expanding across the country over the last several years. That’s not surprising. They’re strong, cheap and based on personal experience, a lot of fun.

More interesting is who makes them. How did a high school teacher in a quiet Dallas suburb happen to create an underground drinking phenomenon?

BuzzBallz’ genesis began in 2009, by the edge of a backyard pool, in between a pile of papers to be graded and, of course, a cocktail. Merrilee Kick was distracted by the cocktail. Or more accurately, the glass it was in. Balanced near the water’s edge, it seemed only a matter of time until a breeze or errant pen stroke tipped the glass. She thought: Wouldn’t this be better with a plastic container? Yes. Weren’t there other people—kicking back by pools, rivers and barbecues—that might feel the same way?

From this idle daydream, Kick began assembling a list of qualities she wanted not only in her dream drink, but in its packaging. The plastic would be unbreakable and light enough to float. The product would be colorful, stackable and recyclable, and the drinks would be made with real fruit juice. If you forgot one in the freezer, it wouldn’t explode but would remain slushy enough to drink. Most importantly, she wanted a product that didn’t skimp on the main attraction: the alcohol. Or as Kick put it, she “wanted something strong enough and tasty enough to be like I would have made it [at home].”

The first order of BuzzBallz shipped in late Summer of 2010, which turned out to be auspicious. That November, bowing to widespread social pressure, the FDA finally put the kibosh on caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Four Loko, momentarily sobering up America’s twenty-two-years olds enough to explore other ways of un-sobering up. A year later, BuzzBallz was expanding beyond Texas.

Four years later, Kick’s dream is concrete: BuzzBallz are available in nine flavors and nearly 40 states. And with an eye on international distribution and plans for new flavors (including pumpkin and watermelon), they’re not looking to slow down.

Behind The Ball

Talking with Merrilee Kick, I was struck by how her personality seems to have distilled right into her product. She is bright and disarmingly straightforward, but neither quality diminishes the sense of a high-proof intensity just below the surface.

Merrilee and her son Alex (the brand’s VP) designed the product from the ground up, and the pair’s DIY approach gives Merrilee’s answers the ring of honesty. When she talks about her team with nearly familial affection and describes their production facility as “like Willy Wonka’s factory,” it doesn’t come off as an act. When I ask how flavor names are developed, she tells me that they usually evolve from “sitting around the office, drinking a few and letting the names fly...when we just die laughing, that’s when we know we have a winner.” I believe her. Maybe it’s because she’s just as unedited in less flattering answers, such as railing against an Ohio news outlet who implied BuzzBallz marketed to children, or when discussing the missteps and learning curves involved in acquiring industrial molds and international distribution.

Taste Test

It would be to completely miss the point to judge BuzzBallz on the same criteria as one would, say, a whiskey or aged mezcal. These are drinks made for barbecues and beach days and hot nights, intended to be pulled out of a cooler, not a liquor cabinet. They are the summer blockbusters of drinks—loud and fun and silly and more interested in leaving you smiling than thinking. They are literally ballz that get you buzzed. Do they taste incredible? Opinions land all over the map. A better question is, “Are you having fun?” Put a few on ice and you will be.

Matt Merkin is a writer and photographer currently based in Oakland, CA.