I'm proud to say that I'm one of millions of gay men who enjoys crafting. Nothing gets my juices flowing like a Pinterest binge. Make my own succulent garden? Cute! Update a light fixture with a modern touch? Nothing a trip to my local hardware store can't handle! Mix my own Isobutyl Nitrite poppers in a homemade chem lab while dodging chemical burns and lung damage? Hmmm!
As VICE's completely self-designated poppers correspondent, I've sampled a smorgasbord of different formulations of Gay America's favorite drug. All were acquired through typical channels: leather shops, adult videos stores, and online distributors. They're pretty easy to come by—though poppers are technically illegal, "VHS head cleaner" or "room deodorizer" are not. At sex stores across the country, you'll reliably find standard brands of poppers like Rush, Jungle Juice, and Amsterdam, ranging in price from $5 to well over $20 a bottle.
But while many of those brands are internationally famous, whatever the hell is actually in them remains a bit of a mystery. Various kinds of alkyl nitrites produce the drug's effects (like isobutyl, amyl, and isopentyl nitrite), but you're not gonna see a GOOP-approved ingredients list on a popper anytime soon. At least as long as Trump is in office. And half the time, you're actually buying a bootleg of whatever brand is on the label, anyway. In this grayest of gray markets, it's virtually impossible to know what's what. And that's just one reason some hardcore poppers enthusiasts have turned to making their own DIY batches at home.
It's scarily easy to find instructions online explaining how to produce your own poppers. While some connoisseurs home brew to satisfy their own insatiable cravings, others do so to sell online and at gay events. The process is actually super dangerous, so for the love of God, don't try it at home. Your renters insurance won't cover the consequences!
Julian Bendaña is the founder of a popular "VCR cleaning enthusiasts group," as he calls it, on Facebook. With a vision of producing his own brand of "VHS cleaner" as an art project, he researched various approaches, from rebranding blank bottles to making his own from scratch. Thankfully for pig bottoms worldwide, he settled on the latter, and earlier this year launched his Double Scorpio brand alongside his boyfriend, who happens to be a biochemist. With Julian's determination and his boyfriend's skill set, they began perfecting their blend.
As with most new small businesses, they ran into hiccups along the way. Julian said his boyfriend received an acid burn on his leg at one point, and their first batch amounted to little more than a red, noxious gas. But eventually they found chemistry that worked.
"Once we finally got the formula right we were also the control [group]," Julian wrote. "[My boyfriend] opened like Moses commanding the Red Seas, so then we knew they were ready to be put on the market." (I think what Julian meant was that his boyfriend began operating like a GoVideo DDV3110 Dual Deck 4-Head Hi-Fi VCR.)
Since mastering the process, they've started selling their unique blend of "farm to disco" Double Scorpio "cleaner" at queer dance parties, leather bars, and online, with plans to expand their popup at an upcoming local orgy.
Other DIYers were reluctant to give their names, due to the quasi-legal nature of poppers as a drug and fears of retribution from their employers. A Redditor who simply goes by "E" said he decided to make his own because he was fed up with the inconsistency of poppers he'd buy over the counter—but noted he has a science background and access to basic chemistry equipment that makes DIYing safer and easier. "I've found that different bottles have different effects, and the feeling I got from purchased bottles was steadily moving into solely head rush territory, with none of the libido enhancement and inhibition reduction I was looking for," he said. "Even brands I liked in the past were no longer working the way I wanted."
He said he was understandably wary of the production process at first. "Anyone making highly volatile and flammable compounds without much chemistry experience should be," he said. "It's not hard to end up in a cloud of explosive vapor that also makes you pass out." But after "about three batches," he worked out the kinks, as it were, and produced a decent batch.
He said nothing makes his formula unique from what you can buy over the counter—his goal is to make something that closely matches poppers made in commercial labs. And while he's enjoyed the few batches he's made so far, DIYing "isn't really something I would suggest people do in their garage with a blender made from an electric drill," he said. "I've only had one incident I might label a close call. I added the acid too quickly to a batch that was too cold and the water rapidly froze while the popper came out of it, and the froth caused everything to spill out of the mixing vessel." He said he was able to let the air clear and things turned out fine, reassuring me "there was never a fire danger." Only mildly terrifying!
Unlike E's struggles with consistency, the sheer cost of retail poppers is what drove another Redditor (who chose to be identified for this piece by his username, "popperpig") to make his own. Unlike Julian's budding business, popperpig said he makes his aromas exclusively for himself, though he added he does occasionally trade blends with a lifelong friend who also makes his own. "Once in a blue moon we'll swap a new pop," he wrote me. Holding back tears, as that's close to the most heartwarming story I've ever heard, I couldn't help but think of a 21st-century version of Brokeback Mountain's Jack and Ennis, mailing each other homemade blends of poppers instead of postcards.
Needless to say, my curiosity is piqued, but I'm still hesitant to venture into the homemade poppers circuit. Knowing experienced chemists like E and Julian's boyfriend are still capable of a whoopsie daisy definitely doesn't give me the confidence to experiment with chemical compounds. Poppers can be easily acquired at super low prices where I live, and if I can't nail the ratios for a sangria that won't make you call out of work the next day, I'm definitely not going to play with chemicals that are actually dangerous. Had Bill Nye the Science Guy ever covered the process when I was a kid, I'd probably be paying off my parents' mortgage today. But either way, poppers are easy enough to buy online. Unless you're hellbent on becoming the queen of gay Etsy, leave the mixology to the pros.