Malt liquor is one of those things that are easy to recognize yet difficult to define. It’s not strictly characterized by alcohol content, the inclusion of adjunct ingredients or having an unusually high specific gravity, but often some combination of the three. I think the best way to confirm you’re buying a malt liquor is to wander through the supermarket beer aisle until you find the region with the thickest stench of despair and abandoned pretense. Failing that, here’s what Miriam-Webster had to say about it:
- Pronunciation: \mawlt li-kər\
- Function: 1. noun; 2. to get tore up, son
- Derivation: Middle English/poverty
- Definition: 1. a North American term referring a type of beer whose alcohol by volume equals or exceeds 5%. 2. Shit that suburban white kids drink because they saw a rapper do it (See also “Cristal”). 3. Pimp Juice, possibly. We were never clear if Nelly was talking about an actual beverage, a metaphor or his ejaculate.
The definition as it pertains to rappers is the one that resonates with me. My first exposure to malt liquor was watching the “Aint’ Nuthin’ But A G Thang” video from Dr. Dre’s seminal album The Chronic. I specifically recall a scene where Tha D.O.C. snaps open a fridge to reveal a stack of 40 ouncers enveloped in light and fog like the Arc of the Covenant was chilling in the crisper:
Crunk. We has it.
Never mind that the combined cost of that fridge’s contents couldn’t be more than $100, I was totally captivated by how ballin’ it was. I had to try it.
Thus began my adolescent love affair with malt liquor. I adored how cheap it was, the manly stature of the oversized bottle in my hand and its efficiency in dispatching all that pesky sobriety. Sure, it tasted like someone let their musk ox teabag a Budweiser, but I could hardly let something like flavor ruin a perfectly good drink.
Now that my palate has evolved, I thought it was time to revisit these fond memories and turn a critical eye to the elixirs that mesmerized me so. However, I’m not so naive as to believe these will meet any traditional metric of success, so I’ve revised my grading system to rate these on a scale of 1 to 5 Friday-era Chris Tuckers. This also celebrates a time in my life where I believed more Chris Tucker was somehow a good thing.
King Cobra (6% ABV)
This heavily carbonated swill is a dull yellow-orange. The smell is kind of greasy, almost like Vaseline, with a healthy dose of canned corn. Is your mouth watering yet?
It doesn’t exactly taste like beer, but it seems like someone really wanted it to. It has some bitterness, though it’s more reminiscent of brussel sprouts than hops. To fully appreciate how much this upsets me, you’ll need to speak to my mom circa 1984 at the peak of my “I won’t eat this and you can’t make me!” phase. She’ll probably answer you between extended sighs and sips from a coffee mug filled with bourbon.
The carbonation bites unpleasantly at the tongue. Worse, it assures that this concoction will be revisiting my mouth in discrete bursts of gaseous nasty in a few minutes.
I know it’s not fair to exclusively talk about the negative aspects of this beer. But it is fun. I’m going with fun.
As much as I loathe being unflattering towards something as undeniably cool as a king cobra, about the only thing this bottle did right was limiting its serving size to 32 oz.
Steel Reserve (8.1%ABV)
The Steel Reserve can is incredibly verbose. It looks like it was designed by a budding novelist. I guess the logic was you’d want something to pass the time reading after the alcohol content of this beer caused you to slip into a coma.
It’s a pale gold brew with a beady head that topples under the rat-a-tat of machine gun carbonation. The nose is sweet, but with a weird solvent tone to it. Finally, there’s a beverage that doesn’t force you choose between spending your last dollar on beer or engine de-greaser.
The carbonation bites at the tongue something fierce. While that may sound innocuous enough, consider its impact on the Chug Factor of this malt liquor. Given that this is not exactly a beer you’d slowly cherish between swirls in a brandy snifter, the ability to shotgun it into your gullet is critical.
The beer has a sweetness, but its not so much of the corn adjunct variety that I’ve noticed with others of its ilk. It is a rice sweetness that quickly gets kneecapped by something I’m coining as “The Funk.” It’s an unusual bitter flavor that dries the mouthfeel somewhat, but in a sort of aggressive, chemical way that is hard to pinpoint. Given that this is a quality product (the can says so!) I’m sure they used only the finest benzene available, but it’s just not sitting right with me.
Unlike some malt liquors that deliver their funk right out of the gate, this one sucker-punches you with it. Technically speaking, it’s probably the product of fusel alcohol (a common by-product in high gravity beers), but it could just be rat poison. Maybe the can will clear it up:
Mickey’s (5.6% ABV)
Straight Up Disclosure Of Bias: There is arguably no malt liquor dearer to me than Mickey’s. This beer was a staple during my formative years and factored prominently in much tomfoolery. I’d like to think I can compartmentalize and treat this beer objectively, but Mickey’s contributed to me getting a BJ that was the stuff of legend. I defy any of you to be impartial in such circumstances.
Mickey’s is a light straw brew that pours with a surprisingly thick finger of eggshell head. The nose is sweet with notes of cornflakes, rice, and a very mild wet cardboard smell. I never thought I would award bonus points for NOT smelling like Vaseline, but here we are.
If this beer has the same funk to it as the others, it’s masking it well. The flip side of that is it comes off as a corn-infused soda water. It has a more traditional pitting of cereal grains against hops as you’d expect in something in the lager spectrum, though the bite at the end is more sour than bitter.
Essentially Mickey’s earns distinction by not failing in any one capacity as egregiously as its cohorts did. I think this pretty much sums it up:
“I don’t always drink malt liquor, but when I do, I prefer Mickey’s.”
-The Most Interesting (Homeless) Man In The World