After being bombarded on television for weeks by ads for Citrona and Captain Morgan's Gold, I decided I had to check out all the new malt beverages. Were they just a vehicle for liquor companies wanting to get their brand names on television, or were they a legitimate new beverage category that a diligent college student such as myself should include in his repertoire? Fortunately, this was a voyage of discovery that Slate was willing to fund, leaving me in the prelapsarian position of having mine and my friends' inebriation underwritten by Microsoft. Score!
In the beverage industry, these malt beverages are known as "malternatives" because they're malt-based alternatives to beer. By virtue of their customary sweetness and their role as alcohol-for-people-who-don't-like-beer, they are often viewed (though never marketed) as girly drinks. Ads position them as classy quaffs for hip twentysomethings, a far cry from dirt-cheap malt liquors like Olde English 800, Colt 45, and King Cobra, which are usually found in decidedly non-classy settings like 40-ounce bottles, brown bags, Method Man lyrics, and my MicroFridge at school.
So, a dozen classmates and recent college grads (five ladies and seven guys, including me) came over to sample the beverages and discuss if it really is socially acceptable for guys to drink this stuff. The potables were tasted blind and then rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 delicious and 1 disgusting. As the alcohol intake increased, impromptu golf tips and singing along to Chronic 2001 distracted some panelists. Also, handwriting legibility declined drastically. Based on what I could decipher, here they are, from worst to first.
Captain Morgan Gold: Fool's Gold
Average Score: 4.6
The Captain got such a hostile response that it's downright insubordinate. The spiced-rum odor is strong, but the taste is weak and watered-down. Probably intended to taste like the novice drinker's old favorite, rum and coke, the painfully sweet drink instead ended up being compared unfavorably by testers to maple syrup, Vanilla Coke, Kahlua, and an ungodly mix of Tab and cough syrup.
Guy Suitability: "I'd rather walk the plank than drink this, but the Captain's appearance on the bottle adds a sufficient amount of masculinity."
Average Score: 4.7
The forebear to today's bumper crop of malternatives gets marks ill-befitting its trailblazing heritage. Its taste was likened to soap, really bad sake, rotten Sprite, fermented Robitussin, and "decay." The most positive comment: "Bubbly, nice. … I said 'I like this one.' People asked what's wrong with me."
Guy Suitability: "No guy should or could ever rock this."
Mike's Hard Iced Tea: Flat, Taxing
Average Score: 4.9
The sole drink without carbonation, the hard iced tea's flatness is described as "disturbing" by many a taster. It does taste like iced tea—supersweet, supernasty iced tea. "The worst taste I've ever had. Wow." Perhaps the most revealing comment: "I would not drink based on ALL the negative comments and reactions. Sorry." (Thanks, Kim!)
Guy Suitability: "I can't see a guy or girl drinking this."
Hooper's Hooch Hard Lemonade: Cloudy Hoochie-Mama
Average Score: 5.2
Hooch's cloudiness resulted in consternation and lame attempts at an explanation: "cloudy color probably designed to mask sinister cough-drop taste." The taste is alcohol-heavy and very, very bitter, "so tart it makes my tongue squirm."
Guy Suitability: A split opinion. "Nothing wrong with holding a bottle that says 'Hooch' on it." "No guy would ever buy something called 'Hooch.' "
Mike's Hard Lemonade: Needs Lemon Aid
Average Rank: 5.7
"Like seltzer spiked with aspartame," Mike's flagship hard lemonade is cloyingly sweet and bland as Vitamin Water. "Is this supposed to be lemonade? If so, it's a failure." One positive taster said it "could be passed off as a vodka tonic."
Guy Suitability: "Not likely to be bought for a Super Bowl party."
Bacardi Silver: Better Than (Captain Morgan) Gold
Average Rank: 6.0
"Unique," but not bad. Attempts to describe Bacardi Silver's "very strange taste … not nondescript, but uncategorizable" center on cinnamon, lots of lemon, a likeness to Robitussin, and some vague relationship to rum. The most evocative comment: "Tastes like medicine, smells like an old grapefruit."
Guy Suitability: "Gives you bad breath—not good for a guy on the prowl."
Doc's Hard Lemon: What the Doc Ordered
Average Rank: 7.9
Anheuser-Busch's lemonade is the most popular one by far. An optimum carbonation level and a taste that's actually reminiscent of real lemonade ("like Newman's Own") add up to a winner. "Crisp and refreshing like high-school prom punch," this "would be great at a dorm party."
Guy Suitability: "Good for tropical drinking. … I wouldn't be ashamed of drinking this in a dirt-ass Cancun bar."
Smirnoff Ice: Cool as Ice
Average Rank: 8.1
Like Hooch, Smirnoff Ice is faulted for its cloudiness, but unlike Hooch, the Ice tastes nice. "Definitely the best yet … not too sweet." A strong lemon flavor, the right carbonation level ("less bubbly"), and ideal positioning on the sweet/tart spectrum make this one a winner. The distinction that makes all the difference: "not tangy; crisp."
Guy Suitability: "Wouldn't look too sissy drinking this."
Skyy Blue: Praised to the Skyy
Average Rank: 8.5
"Enlivening, invigorating!" raves one panelist of our big winner. Half the panel wrote that it tastes nothing like alcohol, and that's apparently exactly what we were thirsty for. "A hybrid between Canada Dry ginger ale and Fresca," Skyy Blue is the only malternative that won the comment "Smells good too!" Its highest compliment: "I'd serve this at my table."
Guy Suitability: "Definitely manly. Why? Because it's the most burp-inducing."
Stolichnaya Citrona: Tonight We Don't Drink Citrona
Average Rank: N.A.
Despite a pervasive multimedia ad campaign baring the slogan "Tonight We Drink Citrona" and expensive-seeming sponsorship of Big Brother 3, Stoli Citrona was not yet available for retail purchase where I live, that minor U.S. market called New York City.
Guy Suitability: I spent a lot of time searching for this stuff, and I'm still pretty bitter about it—Stoli's being too much of a tease pumping up the beverage and not delivering the goods. So, I'm gonna arbitrarily say it's totally unacceptable for guys.
In summary, many of the malternatives smell bad. And the yellow-tinted ones—particularly those with some froth (hello, Hooch!)—look like urine. The rum-brand derivatives (Bacardi, the Captain) do taste something like rum, or at least they show an effort to taste something like rum. The malt beverages by vodka companies taste nothing like vodka; Smirnoff Ice is basically another hard lemonade. As a group, the liquor-brand spinoffs did better than the unaffiliated malts (7.8 vs. 5.3), proof to me that the malt beverages do not exist solely to get liquor brands on television and in front of kids.
Surprisingly, the supposed girliness of the malternatives did not lead to more generous scores from women. In fact, the men's average ranking (6.2) was higher than the women's (5.4). Then again, neither sex was particularly excited about the category: We concluded that even at the frightful prospect of maintaining sobriety, Captain Morgan Gold, Zima, and Mike's Hard Iced Tea should be avoided at all cost. Hit the Mike's Hard Lemonade, Hooper's Hooch, or Bacardi Silver if they're the only alcohol available. Only Skyy Blue, Smirnoff Ice, and Doc's Hard Lemonade live up to the title of malternative: They're refreshing, tasty beer alternatives. Still—and maybe it was just because we all drank so disgustingly much of the stuff—none of the panelists have drunk a malt beverage in the weeks since the tasting. Malternatives may have taken over the airwaves, but our taste buds haven't been conquered so easily.