The Sleazy and Spectacular History of Malt Liquor
Don Vultaggio says he was like Captain Kirk, boldly going where no other had gone before. With a VW van, a partner, and enough guts to set foot in the roughest parts of late-’70s Brooklyn, Vultaggio began delivering malt liquor. This was a dangerous job -- so dangerous, in fact, that the breweries’ own truck drivers refused to do it, which is the opening Vultaggio wanted to exploit. He braved stickups and shoot-outs. He hauled cheaper product from upstate wholesalers back into the city, because gas was 30 cents a gallon, and the hassle paid well.
In time, one van became a dozen trucks, and then two dozen. One little fly-by-night distribution operation became a $2 billion beverage empire that now makes everything from malt liquor and flavored malt beverages, to beer, to -- wait for it -- AriZona Iced Tea.
And it all started with malt liquor. To Vultaggio, malt liquor was a good business proposition. Serving the underserved. Getting product to market. In the years that followed, malt liquor came to represent a lot more, to a lot more people, in a hell of a lot more places. Since its creation, malt liquor's fortunes have been entangled with America's sorest social bugbears, from race, to class, to poverty, to whether or not capitalism ought to give a shit about any of those things.
Maybe you're familiar with its baggage. Maybe not. As Kihm Winship (who wrote one of the few good histories of malt liquor) put it, it is "a story without heroes." But what a story. Thanks to the people who made it, sold it, protested against it, rapped about it, and of course drank it, the history of malt liquor is a spectacular and uniquely American shitshow. And here it is, in all its glory.
But first: what the hell is malt liquor, anyway?
Malt liquor is beer with more alcohol than the 3.5-4% ABV adjunct lagers that were standard in the US through the first half of the 20th century. It’s about 20% stronger than "regular" beer (between 4.5% and 8.5% ABV during its heyday, though now you can find double-digit malt liquor). Enzymes are added to break down complex sugars in the ingredients (malt, hops, corn grit, etc.) to render more fodder for yeast to turn into alcohol. Heartier yeasts and more fermentables in the mash -- that’s all it takes.
For the sake of clarity, here are some things that malt liquor is not:
- Actual liquor
- "Alcopop," also known as flavored malt beverages, hard lemonade, etc.
- Ice beer
Got it? Good. Onward! Toward... white people?
That's right: white people
It's not every day that white people in pearls and pinstripes come together for a round of malt liquor, but here they are, in a wood-paneled room with a roaring fire in the hearth and a Yankee Clipper on the mantle.
The above 1955 advertisement for Country Club malt liquor is one of the few surviving remnants of malt liquor's first act. Eisenhower was in the White House, "craft beer" was a few wars away, and advertisers were doggedly trying to get white people to drink malt liquor.
"When it came out, the United States Beer Association -- which is now called the Beer Institute -- wanted to teach people that malt liquor was a refined drink," says Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. She delivers a mock sales pitch: "Put a couple of ice cubes in, it’s more like a cocktail than a beer!”
Malt liquor was intended to provide the boost the industry needed in the face of falling per-capita beer consumption and increasing competition from spirits and wine, and malt liquor marketers bent over backward to ingratiate themselves with the white middle class. There were Champagne-inspired offerings like Champale (one of the first malt liquors, introduced in 1952), Champetite, and Sparkling Stite (which billed itself "Pale & Dry as Champagne"). There were enough WASPy references to fill a white-privilege bingo card: Country Club, of course, but also University Club, Olde English, and Town & Country V.V.S. There was even a reference to a founding father: Patrick Henry.
The more potent malt liquor seemed, the more people drank.
Ultimately, marketers failed to convince the white bourgeois that malt liquor was the new drink of the white bourgeois. But they did convince someone, albeit unintentionally. The word bubbled up the supply chain, from corner store, to distributor, to brewer, and finally to marketing departments: malt liquor is selling well in black neighborhoods. No one knew exactly why. It wasn't cheaper than regular beer (that would come in the late ’80s, when Schlitz, then the market leader, undercut the competition and triggered the whole category's slide from premium to bottom shelf). And the messaging was still white as all hell -- in fact, a marketing study from the era suggests that malt liquor’s upper-class packaging may have been a contributing factor to its appeal to black customers, though this is no easy thing to corroborate.
Whatever the cause, it was happening, and the industry took notice. "[When] you get a marketing guy in there who sees it's a disproportionately black business, it becomes a black business," says Chick Powell, himself a marketing guy with 30 years’ experience working for brands such as Colt 45 and Schlitz. With a different target demographic, it was time for a different marketing approach. The collegiate/suburban imagery had to go. To replace it, malt liquor marketing looked to the... farm?
The barnyard years
In the ’60s, a Baltimore brewery by the name of National (of Natty Boh fame) tested its own hunch on malt liquor messaging. Maybe low-income communities, overwhelmingly non-white then, as now, were buying malt liquor because the higher ABV made it seem like a better value. So instead of pitching malt liquor’s upper-middle-class cachet, why not market its strength?
Enter Colt 45. At 5.6% ABV, National’s new malt liquor wasn’t notably stronger than its competition, but the name suggested otherwise. In case customers missed the reference to the high-powered handgun, National slapped a bucking bronco on the label, to show that its malt liquor had a "kick." (The man responsible for the branding, the late Dawson Farber, always maintained the name was an homage to Baltimore Colts running back Jerry Hill, who wore jersey number 45.)
"This was a masterstroke," wrote Winship. After Colt 45 went national, "the well-mannered malt liquor brands of the previous decade were trampled by a herd of animals." For the next 20 years, the kicking colt would do retail battle with all sorts of malt liquor mascots, including its archrival: Schlitz's charging blue bull.
The category remained small -- just 2.4% of the overall US industry in 1970, and 2.9% in 1980, according to data from The U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis, by Victor and Carol Tremblay -- but the lesson was clear: the more potent malt liquor seemed, the more people drank.
Then came Lando Calrissian
Jim Dale remembers the pitch. "It was, for better or worse, my idea," says the advertising executive of the 1986 Colt 45 ad campaign that changed the face of malt liquor forever. "He had done the first Star Wars movie at that point," Dale says. "Women and men both thought he was about the coolest fuckin' guy there was."
"He" was Billy Dee Williams. Lando Calrissian. The king of Cloud City! With a velvet purr and magnetic charm, Billy Dee Williams was practically born to be a pitchman. "I’m sure if they’d done a black James Bond at that time, he would have been considered for the role," says R. Lorraine Collins, associate dean at the University of Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, who has studied substance consumption and abuse in minority communities for over 30 years. (Representatives for Williams did not respond to requests for comment, though tweets like this one suggest the man reflects fondly on his tenure as the face of Colt 45.)
"The surgeon general was on the newscast every night, just ripping us."
Williams’ blackness was important to Dale. "We said, '[Malt liquor has] become an urban product. We’re gonna find a really cool guy for that market, but someone who has great crossover appeal,'" he recalls. "Someone who’s well known, but not so well known that people look at him and say, 'Oh, he's [basically] white.'" After a search, Dale and his team at W.B. Doner (since renamed Doner) settled on Williams.
To be fair, black celebrities shilling malt liquor was hardly a new idea. Rufus Thomas (1974), The Commodores (1979), and Richard Roundtree (1982) all stumped for Schlitz. Legendary football player-turned-blaxploitation actor Fred Williamson did the same for King Cobra in 1985, and Redd Foxx had starred for Colt 45 just a few years before Billy Dee. But no campaign featuring a black celebrity had ever quite achieved the perfect alignment of man and message the way this one was about to. The message: "Colt 45: It works every time."
And it did. Colt 45 began to sell. Neither Dale nor Powell (who worked on the Colt 45 brand during the same era) could recall specific sales figures, and Pabst Brewing Company, the current brewer of Colt 45 (as well as Country Club, St. Ides, and several other malt liquor brands mentioned in this story), did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But production data found in The U.S. Brewing Industry tells the story just fine.
One year before Dale tapped Williams to sex up the stuff, Colt 45 produced 1,790,000 barrels, putting it roughly 100,000 barrels behind Schlitz, the category leader. The "Works Every Time" spots hit the airwaves in 1986. The following year Colt 45 produced 2 million barrels, galloping past Schlitz into malt liquor's top spot.
"The genie," Winship wrote, "was out of the bottle."
And it was a pretty big bottle
It’s not clear who started selling malt liquor in 40oz bottles. Malt liquor began its life in 7, 8, and 16oz cans, and had graduated to quart bottles and 24oz cans by the early '80s. Forties, for their part, have been around since World War II -- the vessels, anyway. A 1993 New York Times article claims they were wed to malt liquor in the late ’80s, and that upon their introduction the category's volume jumped 12%. (The proprietor of 40ozMaltLiquor.com, a man who asked to be identified only as Bruz, and who has collected more than 1,000 40s over two decades, told me that the first malt liquor 40 was probably an early-’80s Colt 45 in a "stubby-style" 40oz bottle.)
Regardless of which brand sold 40s of malt liquor first, customers -- particularly men -- loved them. "The 40 has this particular nod to masculine excess," says J. Nikol Beckham, a beer scholar and assistant professor of communication studies at Randolph College. "It says, This is a lot, and I need a lot." Adds Collins, "It’s not like a bottle of wine that you can re-cork. It essentially demands that it be consumed" in a single drinking session.
The package was a hit with two groups, and you already know about the low-income, lifelong, disproportionately non-white drinkers. But college kids loved the stuff, too. Strapped for cash, desperate to get drunk and feel cool, fledgling drinkers of all colors took to the malt liquor 40. They invented "Edward Fortyhands," a drinking challenge in which two malt liquor 40s are duct-taped to the player's hands and removed only when drank. They bought them by the case and smashed empties against frat house walls. They made websites -- early, uglyGeoCities monstrosities -- to sing the praises of malt liquor.
With stronger sales, coupled with the fact that 40s were cheaper for brewers to bottle and sell, the big bottle's quick ascension to the malt liquor throne was all but guaranteed. It just needed one more ingredient to establish itself as the de facto malt liquor package: hip-hop.
"Go to the counter with your five / And buy a 40 of the St. Ides"
Before Ice Cube sold Coors Light and starred in family comedies, he was a professional rapper and white-person frightener in the iconic group N.W.A. He was also a pitchman for St. Ides. As with Billy Dee Williams, Cube's slogans worked every time. But his were... uh, well, here's an example from this 1993 ad: "Get your girl in the mood quicker / Get your jimmy thicker / With St. Ides malt liquor."
In other words: drink this, fuck good. Less than a decade after Jim Dale merely flirted with innuendo to sell swill, Ice Cube and a coterie of rap icons from both coasts dispensed with the foreplay altogether. (Through a representative, Ice Cube declined to comment for this story.)
"I considered it a genocide on the young African-American community."
The union was auspicious. Malt liquor has never captured even a 5% volume share of the US beer market. In the urban, poor, and black communities, however, its presence was huge. In the early ’90s, African-American drinkers composed around 12% of the country's population, according to census data, but they drank around 28% of the country's malt liquor, according to a widely referenced study by Shanken Communications. And additional research suggested that number skewed heavily male.
Virtually all nationally recognizable rappers in that era were black men. More often than not, they were from disadvantaged neighborhoods. And malt liquor, says Shea Serrano, author of The Rap Year Book, was a cultural touchstone, something that said, "You know about this drink if you're a part of this community."
The list of rappers who promoted St. Ides (5.9% ABV at the time; now up to 8.2%) "reads like a who’s-who of the culture's most respected early- to mid-’90s artists," wrote Kyle Coward last year in The Atlantic. Joining Ice Cube in shilling for St. Ides were household names like Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Warren G, Nate Dogg, and the Wu-Tang Clan. It was "one of the earliest examples -- if not the earliest -- of a brand with no inherent ties to hip-hop completely building its identity around the genre," wrote Coward. (McKenzie River Corporation, the brewer who produced St. Ides during that period, declined comment for this story.)
Olde English enjoyed a similar bump as hip-hop hit it big. Unlike St. Ides, the brand had been around since 1964 and already had street cred thanks to its strength -- especially on the West Coast, where looser restrictions on alcohol content enabled its ABV to soar as high as 7.5%. (Elsewhere, it was 5.9% ABV; now it’s higher no matter where you look.) As early as 1987, Olde English was making waves, getting name-checked everywhere from N.W.A.’s "8-Ball" to the lede of an incendiary Time story about gang violence in South Central. John Singleton would use its red-and-gold-foil 40 label as synecdoche for the entire malt liquor category in Boyz n the Hood, released in 1991.
Hip-hop’s high visibility bore fruit on brewers’ balance sheets. In 1989, Olde English 800 produced 950,000 barrels, according to The U.S. Brewing Industry. In 1993, it produced 1,975,000, making it the category’s biggest brand by volume. Not to be outdone, in its first full year of production -- somewhere between 1987 and 1990, according to multiple accounts -- St. Ides saw its sales jump around 25%, according to a case study published in Harvard Business Review.
The industry swelled in turn. In 1992, the Los Angeles Timesreported that sales of malt liquor had increased 15% from 1990 to 1991. Total national barrelage leapt from 5,480,000 in ’89 to 8,910,000 in ’93. St. Ides, Olde English, and the rap-aligned "up-strengths," as they came to be known, were driving the category's growth.
Not that everyone was pleased about it. "They took a pretty down-and-dirty road to be able to get some business quickly," says former malt liquor marketer Powell of St. Ides' marketing maneuvers in that era. "They kinda [cast themselves] like a 'ghetto' brand, and that set some people off."
That problem was about to get much worse.
The great PowerMaster disaster
Around the same time that St. Ides and Olde English 800 were winning over hip-hop fans, Chick Powell found himself in an up-strength shitstorm. At its center was PowerMaster, a 5.9% ABV brand launched by his new employer, G. Heileman Brewing Company, maker of Colt 45, in 1991. The problem wasn't rap marketing, though. It was PowerMaster’s very name.
See, federal law technically mandates that no alcoholic beverage -- malt liquor or otherwise -- be marketed on the virtue of its potency. For years, malt liquor marketers had profitably toed this line thanks to a combination of heavy implication and lax enforcement and/or general obliviousness by the ATF. But with the word "power" right on the label, G. Heileman’s latest product overreached. "That was just stupid," says Powell.
Things quickly got out of hand. "The surgeon general [Antonia Novello] was on the newscast every night, just ripping us," Powell recalls. At 5.9% ABV, PowerMaster was indistinguishable from other up-strengths. St. Ides was selling more (PowerMaster hadn't even fully rolled out yet), and OE800 was stronger on the West Coast. But politicians, the press, and the public demanded PowerMaster's head. Novello called the product "socially irresponsible." Dr. Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem's influential Abyssinian Baptist Church, decried the brewer’s "insidious and diabolical marketing methods," preaching in a sermon: "We all know that power doesn’t come from a can!" Father Michael Pfleger, a prominent Chicago activist clergyman, led a protest at G. Heileman’s La Crosse, WI, headquarters. (Multiple messages left with Abyssinian Baptist Church's pastor's office and emails to Pfleger’s personal address went unanswered.)
"They said that we were trying to contaminate the black ghettos and turn black men into derelicts," Powell remembers. G. Heileman, working its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, couldn't afford the bad press or a costly legal defense, and pulled the product in a matter of months, losing a reported $2 million in the process.
After that, the flood
The scandals began to pile up. Malt liquor, briefly the belle of the brewing ball, was headed for the pillory. It had become a political target, "a symbol of a lot of the things that were destroying neighborhoods," says Collins, the University of Buffalo professor. The billboards, celebrity endorsers, and oversized bottles were all visible in a way that drugs like crack -- discreet, illegal, and sold in vials and baggies -- were not, and as a result, malt liquor opened itself up to a decade of attacks.
In 1991, Public Enemy released "1 Million Bottlebags," a snarling rebuke of the industry’s marketing relationship with the black community: They drink it thinkin' it's good / But they don't sell that shit / In the white neighborhood, exposin' the plan / They get mad at me, I understand / They're slaves to the liquor man.
In 1992, Don Vultaggio’s Hornell launched a "super-premium" product called Crazy Horse malt liquor. His company was promptly sued by ancestors of Crazy Horse, the victor of Little Bighorn and a vocal opponent of alcohol in Native American communities during his lifetime. By 1994, the Minnesota Council of Churches had called for a ban on the stuff; a year later, Crazy Horse was outlawed in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The legal battle for the other 49 states sprawled into federal court and spanned a decade. Hornell eventually settled with Crazy Horse’s descendants in the late ’90s and changed the name to "Crazy Stallion."
Also in 1992, St. Ides reached terms with the New York attorney general, agreeing to pay for the state's $50,000 investigation into advertising practices that targeted underage drinkers, without admitting any wrongdoing. And in 1995, Philadelphia pushed through controversial legislation to limit "takeout" malt liquor sales (this was pretty much all malt liquor sales, because it's almost never served in bars and restaurants). Other cities, including Chicago, followed suit.
The clerk chuckled at the 22oz bottles. "This is nothing in the 'hood."
One of the most vocal malt liquor critics was Rev. Paul Scott, founder of the Messianic Afrikan Nation in Durham, NC. He saw his first St. Ides commercial in 1992, on a Saturday morning hip-hop show aimed at black kids. (This was no coincidence: as late as 1996, the FCC was finding beer and malt liquor advertising on MTV programs whose audiences were more than half underage.) "That was my wake-up call," Scott recalls. "I looked at it from a sociopolitical standpoint, and I considered it genocide on the young African-American community." He wasn’t alone. Early blogger-activists like Keidi Obi Awadu of The Conscious Rasta wrote that malt liquor was "part of an overall scheme to control [minorities] that might have reason to undermine the current power status." Others believed that malt liquor was designed to cull the black population by lowering sperm counts and fertility rates. (Black Dynamite, a 2009 blaxploitation satire, features a scene lampooning this theory.)
The backlash took a toll. By the turn of the century, malt liquor’s ouster was written very clearly on the wall. State politicians called it "racist" in the New York Times and "liquid crack" in special committee hearings. In 1999, Scott and other community leaders emerged victorious in a campaign against Phat Boy malt liquor, which they claimed was appealing to underage black men via slang. Like, y'know... "phat."
The malt liquor advertising blitz, for the most part, disappeared. In 1988, Colt 45 spent a brand-high $4.92 per barrel on advertising. By 1998, it was 10 cents/barrel. Olde English went from $3.04 to 17 cents in the same period. King Cobra, Anheuser-Busch's perennially weak malt liquor entry, stopped spending on advertising entirely in 1997, according to The U.S. Brewing Industry.
Rap was changing, too. "Around ’97, ’98, that's when Puff Daddy really took over," says Shea Serrano. "He was like, 'We're done with the come-up story; now it's the 'here we are and this is how much money we have' story." In music videos, magnums of Dom Pérignon and Hennessy replaced 40s of Olde English. St. Ides had already throttled back on its hip-hop partnerships, but now hip-hop itself was throttling back on malt liquor. It's never been ex-communicated entirely -- big-timers like Snoop Dogg have appeared in malt liquor ads well into the aughts, and just this year, E-40 released his own eponymous brand of the stuff. But malt liquor's golden decade at hip-hop's table was over. "It just sorta worked its way into obsolescence," Serrano says.
All these forces combined to decimate the malt liquor industry. After it hit its highest point in 1996, with 8,930,000 barrels produced, it began a steady decline. In 2015, it sold 29 million cases, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. That’s the category’s lowest volume since 1974, the earliest year reported in U.S. Brewing Industry.
And yet, it lives
The malt liquor category did over $500 million in sales last year, according to IRI. That's hardly a fortune by brewing-industry standards (craft beer alone clocked around $19 billion in sales last year), but it’s not nothing, either. And Vultaggio, who is about to build a new brewery in Jersey, claims malt liquor has come full circle: “"Malt liquor, to this new generation, is more what it was in my generation, when I was a kid," he says. "It’s a different, specialty type of brew."
Maybe so. But rather than take Vultaggio’s word for it, I went back to Crown Heights, an old stomping ground of his, to check in on malt liquor's current shelf status. I hit about a dozen bodegas on several late-night visits in early February, checking the coolers and trying to talk to cashiers and customers. It wasn't going very well. In fact, I made only a single semi-noteworthy observation: if a store sold malt liquor, a bright yellow "I [Heart] Big Cans" adhesive sign was almost certainly plastered on one of its walls or windows. It's an ad for AriZona iced tea. (Four decades later, Don Vultaggio still knows how to sell big drinks in tough neighborhoods.)
Then I wandered into a dusty little mid-block grocer on Bedford Ave. This particular store had the ad. It also smelled like cats, and half the shelves were empty. But the fridges were full. There were 40s of Colt 45 and St. Ides, plus 22oz bottles of the same. There were 24oz pounder cans of Olde English; various versions of something Steel Reserve calls its "Alloy Series," wrapped in camo labels; and Appaloosa-splotched tallboys of Crazy Stallion (née Crazy Horse) next to a couple of emerald-green 40s of Mickey's.
I grabbed a few double-deuces -- Colt 45 in one hand, St. Ides in the other -- and walked toward the register, which was bunkered inside a thick sheet of bulletproof fiberglass. As the clerk rang up the bottles ($3.50 for 44oz of booze) and sheathed them in individual brown paper bags, I tried to make conversation.
"Which tastes better?" I asked him, gesturing to the Colt 45 and St. Ides bottles on the counter.
"They’re all the same, man." He shrugged. "I can tell you which one sells the most, though."
"Which?" I asked him, assuming he was about to name a brand.
"Not these," he said, chuckling and tapping the 22oz bottles before him. "Forties. This is nothing in the ’hood."
This is, I think, the only solid ground you'll ever find in the cultural quagmire of malt liquor in America. It's not quite poison, though it sure tastes like it. And it's not quite racist, though its track record for dubious marketing and crude racial insensitivity is undeniable. Young black men drink more malt liquor than they statistically should, given their share of the population, but they still represent less than a third of all its drinkers. Hispanic adults and rural white folks drink more than two-thirds of the stuff. This is something we should remember, as Winship cautioned, "before we cast malt liquor as a racist and calculated attempt to harm minorities."
Try to stake a firm position in the murk between capitalism and morality, where malt liquor has lived for half a century, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Take a big swig from a 40 of malt liquor expecting a premium taste, and you'll likely feel the same. In lieu of satisfaction, the history of malt liquor does offer one small, immutable, undeniable truth about life in America: if you make something strong, put it in a big bottle, and sell it for cheap, someone is gonna drink the damn thing.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Colt 45 was ~1,000,000 barrels behind Schlitz in 1985. Colt 45 was ~100,000 barrels behind. We regret the error.
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