Malt liquor is, to many folks, garbage water in sheep's clothing, or something somehow different than other sorts of more socially permissible swill like Budweiser or Coors. The thing is, it's actually just foggy, straw-colored lager that relies not on hops but various adjuncts and is only not simply beer by dint of marketing strategies. Brewers in ye olden days were always on a quest to increase the alcoholic content of their brews, to give it a kick not seen since before Prohibition. Out of this experimentation with corn and sugar and other adjuncts was born malt liquor, now found in 40-ounce bottles at any of your cheaper liquor stores.
And though it is very obviously beer, it's been sort of a relegated to a Plessy vs. Ferguson definition of beer, both beer and not beer, something that would alternatively be marketed as hip, then dangerous, then hip in a dangerous way. To declare any sort of allegiance to malt liquor is to invite the unpacking of the efficacy and worth of a product with grim subtext and sinister undertones that include both predatory marketing against minorities on the one hand and well-heeled tourist appropriation on the other. The higher-than-average alcohol content and the lower prices wreaked havoc on America's inner cities and vulnerable populations, and to walk around with a 40 in your hand is to be aware of this, to in some tiny way be complicit. But then, in the beginning malt liquor was marketed quite differently, to an altogether different cohort.
Those early marketing campaigns weren't any more evil than any other marketing campaign, which to be fair is not some huge achievement. They focused on the radness of the slight bump in alcohol content compared to other domestics. Country Club's "Looks inviting . . . tastes exciting!" ad from 1955 is a far cry from the target demographic brewers of malt beverages aim to entice today. The ad allows us to peek in on an imaginary world of dinner-jacket WASPs with parted hair guffawing (about the poors?) and merrily guzzling down Country Club malt liquor in fancy goblets. Country Club was literally attempting to push malt liquor on the sorts of people who frequented country clubs.
Its earliest competitor for malt-beverage hegemony was Baltimore's own Colt 45. When brewers finally figured out that blacks were buying malt beverages at a higher rate than their white counterparts, the ad men dutifully went to work on exploiting that angle. In the early '80s Colt 45 recruited no less than Billy Dee Williams, Lando Calrissian himself, as the charming and handsome champion of its brand. Those Williams Colt 45 ads remain iconic. An attractive woman hangs on the shoulder of the malt-liquor-loving alpha male as he grins that beguiling and disarming grin and the text below declares, "It works every time!" In a TV ad Williams holds up a Colt 45 and tells us the two rules for a good time: 1) "Never run out of Colt 45" and 2) "Never forget rule number one." The camera zooms out to reveal an attractive woman and schmaltzy music plays in the background, music that sounds somewhat porn-y. If you buy Colt 45 you will surely be in the bone zone.
But it was the glorification and validation of malt liquor in the hip-hop sphere of influence during the late '80s and '90s that completely changed the game and hardened the battle lines between concerned citizens and 40-ounce warriors. Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and the Wu Tang Clan all starred in commercials extolling the virtues of St. Ides (the Wu Tang one is the best). St. Ides was not very good, but thanks to these street-approved leading men it was suddenly very cool, and its share of the market was owed entirely to the patronage of hip-hop kingmakers. St. Ides even had the audacity to release an ice-pop version of malt liquor! On the other side of the picket line, Public Enemy dropped an anti-malt-liquor anthem, '1 Million Bottlebags,' featuring a typically ferocious Chuck D who refused to march lockstep with Snoop and other hip-hop luminaries: "How many times have you seen/ A black fight a black/ After drinkin' down a bottle/ Or a malt liquor six-pack/ Malt liquor bull/ What it is is bullshit Colt/ 45 another gun to the brain."
Baltimore civic leaders and other Maryland politicians protested mega-brewer G. Heileman's attempt in 1991 to up the ante on its own Colt 45 brand with a more potent and potentially devastating malt beverage, the stupidly named "PowerMaster" (most reports put it at 7.4 percent ABV, compared to Colt 45's 5.6 percent). After threats of boycotts and a multi-city campaign (especially in Chicago) challenging PowerMaster and the implications of an even stronger brand of malt liquor being again marketed more or less exclusively to inner cities, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms withdrew its support. In a very Al Capone sort of victory, the word "power" was the straw that broke the camel's back, as malt-liquor labels "shall not contain the words 'strong,' 'full strength,' 'extra strength,' 'high test,' 'high proof,' 'pre-war strength,' 'full oldtime alcoholic strength,' or similar words or statements, likely to be considered as statements of alcoholic content, unless required by State law."
Knowing the cynical cycle of carnivorous marketing that these brewers (household names such as Miller, Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and others who never reveal themselves on the labels of their malt-liquor surrogates) engaged in, I feel somewhat yucky that 40s are a genuine guilty pleasure. But the weird truth is that 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor have consistently occupied a strange and precious corner in my life as a semi-professional chugger of alcohol. If it's an affectation, it's one that has survived within me for so long that it's circled the irony wagons completely and become sincere.
As a somewhat reactionary riposte to haughty craft-beer taste tests, two good friends (Handsome Patrick and Doug) and I conducted our own taste test, sampling five of the most commonly clutched varieties of malt liquor. We sampled Steel Reserve, Olde English, King Cobra, Mickey's, and Colt 45, and it was supposed to be the beginning of a fun night. It took about two minutes for it to sink in that three (mostly) white guys sipping on 40s in Baltimore in a taste test is laced with pitfalls and cultural baggage we weren't equipped for. As it turns out, the night was funny, but not fun. It was more like a dizzy "Apocalypse Now: For Kids" journey and by the end there were nothing but bad vibes and dread and doubt and stomachaches and human drunkenness.
1. Steel Reserve
Steel Reserve feels even more omnipresent than the rest of the malt-liquor rogues gallery. If you haven't had the "pleasure," Steel Reserve is what nine out of 10 scientists call that raw shit. There's a real cult of appreciation for this beverage, even though it's sort of a shitty piece of shit. Boasting an 8.1 percent ABV, it's the best bang for your blotto buck this side of fortified wine. Handsome Patrick poured us each a healthy portion. We sampled the aroma. We sipped. Easy enough going down and not hardly as terrible as the buildup to the sip, Steel Reserve was the triumph of low expectations. And then the aftertaste struck back with a rolling sucker punch. Steel Reserve is a "high gravity lager" but that certainly doesn't mean we should forget that it's also reminiscent of rubbing alcohol, with delicate notes of lighter fluid peppered throughout. No head retention to speak of. Despite this, Steel Reserve has always had its boosters, including the Ramones, who literally recorded jingles for it in the '90s. They were not the best jingles, but they were definitely jingles.
Pairs well with: Smoked salmon, French-style green beans, oven-baked curly fries
Good for: Taking a nice nap as the sun shines outside
2. Olde English 800
Olde E is a classic like Charlemagne or the Beatles are classic. It's been around since 1964, but it was largely living the life of an unloved stepchild until the late '80s, when it was packed into a 40-ounce bottle after then-owner Pabst looked at some spreadsheets and decided to relentlessly target the urban market. The rest is depressing history. Olde English 800 is all too favorably repped in movies, frat parties, and rap songs beyond mention, with Ice Cube, Nas, and the Beastie Boys all sharing their respective seminal shines with Olde E, granting the bottle and its backers some gravitas. The taste test was without incident. If you sniff hard enough perhaps you can detect the faint aroma of a cornhusk drenched in acid rain. The head stuck around longer than expected, finally revealing a murky yellow body, some bare hints of carbonation, and the wafting notes of Steel Reserve lite. Olde English is what we thought it was. It's fine, it's classic, it's certainly not a boutique beverage, or in a vacuum any sort of hill to die on for malt-liquor partisans. It'll do, pig.
Pairs well with: Chicken Marsala with mushrooms and a few pieces of spinach
Good for: hot days, Netflix and chill
3. King Cobra
Most of the invective during the taste test came during the King Cobra sample. Though King Cobra has been on the market for 31 years, it still feels like it can't possibly be anyone's first choice when reaching for a 40. King Cobra is a poseur. King Cobra is the malt liquor that wears baggy pants and a sideways cocked hat to impress the other malt liquors. Or the malt liquor that is very loudly telling someone how many times it has read "Infinite Jest." An Anheuser-Busch joint, King Cobra succeeds only as far as something to drink must be something wet. While the unofficial rule is that all 40s should be served cold, with King Cobra this is a dire necessity. With a sassy little snake on the label, King Cobra is neither tough nor classic, and drinking it brings no joy, even compared to its peers. The taste is sweet, cloying, and though bland and barely noteworthy, it still tasted noticeably worse than Steel Reserve and Olde English.
Pairs well with: A homemade burrito with Burger King fries stuffed inside all willy-nilly
Good for: Keeping a stack of paper from flying away
Mickey's is a cut above in the department of malt-liquor nostalgia. For whatever reason—and possibly it was the unpleasant buzz setting in from Steel Reserve, Olde English, and the loathsome King Cobra—Mickey's seemed light-years ahead of its competitors simply by packaging its wares in a green bottle, making it look like the most exotic and forward-thinking of the malt-liquor bunch. Famous also for the stumpy beehive-shaped grenade bottles, Mickey's boasts a strong carbonation game, and though Handsome Patrick and Doug were not supremely impressed by it, I found it refreshing and full of subtle victories. It retained head for many more seconds than the other selections and even managed to maintain crispness with possible imagined hints of more or less fresh fruit. A pleasant-enough non-smell, Mickey's may appeal to those who enjoy Irish punk music (the bottle is green) but it's actually for all of us broken humans to enjoy. Stay extremely thirsty, my friends.
Pairs well with: A huge bucket of hash browns
Good for: Ironically declaring your love for Donald Trump in a large crowd
5. Colt 45
Colt 45? It's all right. Current brewer Pabst assures us it's named after Baltimore Colts running back Jerry Hill, though he for damn sure never saw any royalties. We took a few sips of it, then started watching a Nicolas Cage film set in ancient China. It was also all right.
Pairs well with: Colt 45
Good for: Drinking Colt 45