The Evolution and History of E-Liquid

E-liquid has come a long way in the first decade of the e-cigarette industry. While it began as an inexpensive commodity sourced from Chinese makers, e-liquid has become a domestic – and often very premium – product in many areas of the world in which vaping is popular. In many ways, the e-liquid industry has come full circle. E-liquid began as a cheap foreign commodity, but domestic e-liquid makers quickly realized that those who really enjoyed vaping would willingly pay more for a better product. The premium e-liquid industry was born. Soon thereafter, though, sub-ohm vaping took hold – and people began to demand lower e-liquid prices. Before long, the demands of sub-ohm device users made e-liquid a commodity again – only now, it’s a domestic commodity.

Let’s learn more about the history of e-liquid and find out how we got to where we are today.

The Beginning: Chinese Manufacturers Create a Commodity

The First E-Cigarette Cartridges

E-Liquid Cartridge History

A typical early e-cigarette with disposable plastic cartridges

The modern e-cigarette is a Chinese invention. Chinese manufacturers were the first entities to produce modern e-cigarettes, and no one is quite as well positioned as the factories of Shenzhen to mass produce a product, ship it worldwide and mass produce something else a few weeks later when trends change, or a new technology emerges. The first e-cigarettes used hollow plastic cartridges stuffed with sponges. The wet sponge in an e-cigarette cartridge would touch the steel mesh bridge of an atomizer, and the mesh would draw the e-liquid from the sponge to the coil. The first e-cigarette cartridges – and by extension, the first e-liquids – came from China out of necessity. No one else had the equipment to produce and fill the cartridges.

The Cartomizer

E-Cigarette Cartomizer History Filling Machine

Machines automate the process of filling e-cigarette cartomizers.

Within a few years, a new invention – the cartomizer – vastly improved upon the original e-cigarette cartridge and eventually began to replace it. A cartomizer combined an e-cigarette cartridge and atomizer into a single unit by wrapping wet gauze around a heating coil. With the e-liquid in close proximity to the coil, cartomizers produced vapor more consistently than the older cartridges. Even better, each new cartomizer included a new heating coil – so vapor always tasted fresh. Many of today’s cigalikes still use cartomizer technology. To fill cartomizers rapidly, you need a machine capable of injecting e-liquid into the gauze. Since the Chinese invented cartomizer technology, Chinese manufacturers were the only ones for a while with the machines necessary to fill cartomizers. If you bought an e-cigarette during the early days of cartomizer technology, it’s likely that the e-cigarette used Chinese-made e-liquid.

What Is Chinese E-Liquid Like?

Dekang E-Liquid History

A few typical Chinese e-liquids (Dekang brand)

If you’ve ever tried a cigalike, there’s a good chance that you’ve already tasted Chinese e-liquid as some of the biggest e-cigarette brands still source their e-liquids from China.  Taste is subjective, but many of the people who took up vaping in the early days don’t look back on the early e-liquids with fondness. Some of the flavor notes that people have used to describe early Chinese e-liquid include cough syrup, chemicals, cheap perfume and alcohol. Chinese e-liquids in those days usually had single flavor notes. You’d buy an e-liquid called “Strawberry” or “Crème de Menthe,” for example.

Although the original Chinese e-liquids didn’t have the greatest reputation abroad, two Chinese flavors – 555 and RY4 – went on to influence the industry for years to come. Some people refer to the flavor of 555 as that of “mixed nuts with throat hit.” You can still taste that nutty tobacco flavor in many “tobacco” e-liquids today. RY4 is likewise a tobacco flavor. It’s a very sweet one with notes of vanilla and caramel. If you check the selection of any e-liquid company that’s been around for a while, it’s likely that you’ll find an RY4 derivative.

The Rise of Domestic E-Liquids

Halo E-Liquid History

Halo was one of the first American e-liquid brands to achieve mainstream success.

When the vaping industry took off in the United States and Europe, many companies made no attempt to hide the fact that they were selling Dekang or Hangsen e-liquids. Since Chinese e-liquids were cheap, they’d sell anyway. Other companies would buy “white label” e-liquids from China, put their own logos on them and sell them for higher prices. Since those companies weren’t exactly up front about the origin of their e-liquids, you’d encounter situations in which you didn’t know that you were buying a Chinese e-liquid until you’d already paid for it.

In 2010, domestic e-liquid industries began to blossom in the United States and Europe. Domestic e-liquid producers proudly proclaimed the origin of their products, and the people who bought those products enjoyed vastly improved flavors and packaging. While Chinese e-liquids typically shipped in plastic squeeze bottles, domestic e-liquids often came in glass bottles with droppers. Domestic e-liquids typically cost more than Chinese e-liquids, but they also offered markedly better experiences. For a while, American and European e-liquid makers were able to command prices close to $1.00 per ml.

Consolidation and Regulation

Without government regulation, the new e-liquid industry in the United States and Europe was a bit like the wild west. Some companies built professional laboratories and mixed their e-liquids in clean room environments. Ohers – mainly local vape shops – simply bottled their e-liquids in back rooms. The e-liquids mixed at local vape shops were sometimes wildly inconsistent. Some people reported different flavors from one batch to the next. Others received incorrect nicotine strengths. People began to demand more consistent products, and regulation in the United States and Europe helped to make that happen. Companies in the United States had to submit their e-liquid recipes to the FDA. Around the world, people began to expect their local vape shops to carry brands with wide distribution.

What Is Domestic E-Liquid Like?

The best American and European e-liquids have complex, nuanced blends with multiple flavor notes in a single bottle. While a Chinese e-liquid might have a single flavor note – such as strawberry – a domestic e-liquid often features a combination of flavor notes such as strawberry, sweet milk, rich cream and toasted corn cereal. Domestic e-liquid makers follow culinary trends and try to create e-liquids that taste just like popular candies, beverages and desserts. Even the individual flavor notes are complex; an e-liquid maker might use flavor concentrates from several different makers just to create a single flavor note such as strawberry.

The Diacetyl and Acetyl Propionyl Scandal

In 2015, a scandal shook the e-liquid industry to its core. A vendor called Vapor Shark sent samples of 42 different e-liquid brands to a third-party laboratory to have those e-liquids tested for diacetyl and acetyl propionyl. Many of the e-liquids tested positive. Diacetyl is the chemical that has caused permanent lung damage to workers in the popcorn industry. Acetyl propionyl has caused lung damage in animal studies. That report echoed the findings of a 2014 study in which 159 e-liquid samples were tested by a lab. The lab found DA and AP in more than 74 percent of the samples. The issue finally came to a head in 2015 when the retailer Cloud 9 Vaping pulled Five Pawns – then one of the world’s highest priced and most respected premium e-liquid brands – from its shelves after sending Five Pawns’ flavors to a laboratory. The lab found some of the highest DA and AP levels ever recorded in e-liquids. Controversy erupted, and the response from Five Pawns left some feeling as though the company was intentionally trying to obfuscate the discussion. From that day forward, many e-liquid buyers began to demand third-party test results from their favorite e-liquid makers.

E-Liquid Becomes a Commodity Again

Cheap E-Liquid History

The rise of sub-ohm vaping has led to cheaper e-liquid prices.

By the mid-2010s, sub-ohm vaping had become extremely popular among mainstream vapers. As companies like SMOK and Vaporesso packed more and more heating wires into their atomizer coil heads, people realized that they were suddenly consuming massive amounts of e-liquid every day. It was no longer acceptable to pay $20 for a 30 ml bottle of e-liquid. The only way that sub-ohm vaping could possibly be affordable would be for manufacturers to start charging less for much larger bottles of e-liquid – so that’s exactly that the e-liquid manufacturers did.

Today, it’s common to find 120 ml bottles of e-liquid for under $20 in the United States. In Europe, companies sell large, nicotine-free “short fill” e-liquids to comply with regulations restricting the maximum size of e-liquid bottles. Domestic e-liquids are still premium products. They’re tastier and more complex than ever. However, the rise of sub-ohm vaping has forced e-liquid makers to reduce their profit margins to more reasonable levels. E-liquid is better than ever, and it costs less than ever.

The Evolution Continues With Nicotine Salts

Although the e-liquid industry is maturing, it isn’t done evolving. In 2015, the company Pax Labs conducted research while developing the Juul pod vaping system. Pax labs found that adding acid to an e-liquid converted the freebase nicotine in that e-liquid to a nicotine salt. They further found that a high-nicotine e-liquid with nicotine salts could produce a blood-nicotine concentration almost as high as what people experience when they smoke cigarettes. The strength of that research helped to make the Juul America’s most popular e-cigarette when it was released. The Juul became so popular that e-liquid companies began to add nicotine salt e-liquids to their product lineups. Many new pod vaping systems have also appeared on the market. For the first time ever, it is finally possible to achieve complete satisfaction with a very small e-cigarette. Nicotine salts have even become so popular that many former sub-ohm device users have switched to pod vaping systems.

Future E-Liquid Trends

So far, we’ve taken a detailed look at e-liquid history. The industry has come a long way over the past 10 years – so what are the future e-liquid trends that will affect us for the next 10 years? The one certainty is that nicotine salt e-liquids are only going to become more popular. Initially only available in very high nicotine strengths, 2018 will see more companies begin to release nicotine salt e-liquids at lower nicotine strengths for sub-ohm vaping equipment. The e-liquid industry worldwide will likely undergo further consolidation; we think it’s likely that some major e-liquid vendors will buy popular e-liquid brands in order to become the exclusive distributors of those brands. No matter what happens, you can look forward to some wild new e-liquid flavors in 2018. E-liquid makers will continue to look to the culinary world for inspiration as each company tries to be the first to release a revolutionary new flavor profile.