Serious Eats: Drinks
Drinking the Bottom Shelf: 40s of Malt Liquor
For the first time since Reconstruction, I have a date for Valentine's Day. I'm really looking forward to it because my date is smart and pretty and I will eat duck and scallops, but part of me regrets that I won't be hosting my traditional one-man holiday couch party.
But enough about me for a sentence or two. You don't have a date, do you? Well, buck up, soldier! Being a single man on Valentine's Day isn't so bad. While my fellow swells and I are out on the town with our comely lasses and our zippered pants and our "How did I spend $300 on a Monday night in February?" you single stallions will be safe at home, drinking your contentment away.
And since you already have one tough decision to make—summon the ambition to play video games or simply kick back and watch Charlie Sheen and Doogie Howser teach a fat kid how to mistreat women during college basketball commercials—I'm going to tell you what to drink: 40s of malt liquor.
Wincing through a few oversized cold-then-cool-then-kinda-warm ones is the manliest way to drink. Not because there's anything inherently macho about it, but for the strictly definitional reason that women never voluntarily choose to drink beer that's half the price(!) triple the size(!) double the alcohol(!) and a third the quality. I like women a lot, but the fact that they let one little negative outweigh three glaring positives doesn't exactly help overcome stereotypes about their math skills.
Yes, it's true that 40s are unwieldy and also that they force you to choose between blacking out at the ungentlemanly hour of "before the pizza guy gets there" or slowing it down and sweating through a warm second 20. But it's just as true that they're really cheap and make you feel a little bit like a badass late-'80s rapper. As my grandfather used to say, if you're going to be home alone on Valentine's Day, you might as well save a couple bucks and pretend you're Eazy E.
So now that we've settled on what genre of solitary sweatpant boozing you'll be doing, let's tackle the specifics. First of all, you need to make sure you're drinking a proper malt liquor and not merely regular beer in a 40-ounce bottle. What's the difference? Malt liquor says "malt liquor" on the label, dummy. (The definition's a bit hazy, but in general it means American-style lager with a higher alcohol content, although these days a lot of perfectly respectable beers have just as much alcohol as the classic malt liquors, which tend to hover around 6% ABV.)
So which brand of malt liquor tastes the least awful? My research assistant and I drank our way through the most prominent options, presented below in the order in which I can see their carcasses fouling my recycling bin:
It has an over-carbonated sweetness that reminds me of Miller High Life, and I hate Miller High Life. But if it's good enough for Billy Dee Williams, it's good enough for me, even if Billy Dee's famous claim that it "works every time" is only applicable to my life if the work in question involves passing out in the bushes on the way home from Kevin O'Malley's house the summer before 12th grade.
The taste is mild and unassuming, which is a good thing in a beverage category full of dubious assumptions. With rebuses on the underside of the caps, it's also the thinking man's 40.
This sickly yellow beaut is 8.1% ABV and tastes like dry topsoil, and not in an altogether unpleasant way.
Celebrity endorser Ice Cube is my favorite West Coast rapper, which is not nearly enough to compensate for the ugly truth. It tastes like cotton. St. Ides sucks.
Haffenreffer Private Stock:
This was the easiest 40 to come by during my misspent youth, and I still like it even though it's a bit soapier than I remembered. Bonus points for being brewed in Jamaica Plain back in the good old days before the bakeries squeezed out the malt liquories. (My research assistant, despite having been conceived in JP, thought it was the worst of the bunch. She cited the taste and the aftertaste as two particular flaws; when pressed for a specific description, she said, "It tastes like something I hate.")
Olde English 800:
This tastes like nine parts stale beer mixed with one part store-brand cream soda. I hope my man Eazy E snuck into heaven, but if not the silver lining is that they surely serve his beloved OE in hell.
This tasted faintly of overripe lemon and very little else, which made it the runaway winner of our tasting.