Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Mike's Harder Punch

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.


The small city in which I live has several Radio Shacks, a dozen yogurt shops, two dozen yoga shops, at least three places where you can get your dog washed, and not a single KFC. I'm not saying Cambridge is useless to me—there are also several places to buy beer and bicycle parts—but I am saying that there's a whole lot of stuff I don't need and zero ways to obtain the new KFC Chicken Bites I found myself needing last Saturday afternoon.

I do not often need KFC products, but on this particular day Bottom Shelf research director Emily was at some other lady's bridal or baby or house shower and I was scuffling around for something to do when I remembered that the Serious Eats fast food dictator had recently told me to eat these Bites. I don't like to work on Saturday afternoons even when that work involves eating chicken, but I couldn't come up with a better plan or another lunch, so I crossed the thin river separating me from my nearest KFC and set about to Biting.

The Bites were all right, nothing special and nothing deadly, but the trip was nonetheless noteworthy because it reminded me how much I like root beer. The now-defunct Ramblin' Root Beer was my first liquid love and I will never forgive Coca-Cola for replacing it with Barq's. OK, that was an overstatement. I don't really care about root beer anymore, because I'm an adult and soda pop is absolutely terrible for you. I'm not the world's healthiest fella—some days I wonder if I'm even in the top 10—but I believe I've already bragged to you all that the only non-alcoholic things I drink regularly are coffee, water, and broccoli.

I do have soda about once a week, though, because that's how often I can hide it down at the bottom of a fast food receipt destined for the Serious Eats reimbursement department. The aforementioned Bites cost $3.59 alone and $3.99 with a side of mashed potatoes and a drink, and I think in that situation the only responsible move is to commit 40 cents worth of accounting fraud.

I always go for a low- or no-calorie cola, which this time meant some gross thing called Pepsi Max. The self-serve fountain was all out of sorts, though, so to make sure I got Ed's extra 40 cents worth of value meal, I had to wait through several rounds of pressing the lever and waiting for the head to subside. At some point during this soda dance I got distracted by a siren or a pot pie and accidentally popped a shot of Mug root beer into my vat of Max. It turned out to be my favorite soda experience of 2012. I highly recommend diet cola with a root beer floater.

I spent the rest of that afternoon daydreaming about root beer and then I went to work at a bar and remembered that oh right, I enjoy real beer too much to replace it with root beer, and I enjoy moving under my own power too much to add soda to my list of nutritional faults without removing alcohol. So no new soda habit for me, but the MugMax experience did get me considering ways to combine soda and alcohol into one tidy supervice.

I've never liked Coke drinks so those are out; I decided to take the direct approach and reinvestigate the cheap and giant cans of fruity malt garbage the detractors deride as "alcopops" and the rest of us celebrate as an occasionally decent way to get a $3 buzz. I've tried a ton of them over the past couple years of the Bottom Shelf, but until yesterday I'd never gotten around to the Mikes Harder Punch line.

I don't like Mike's packaging: It features a fist. I don't like tough-guy booze, particularly tough-guy booze that is really high school girl booze. But I put that prejudice aside and had my assistant fetch cans of the Harder Orange Citrus and Harder Grape, reasoning that these would be more soda-reminiscent than the Fruit Punch and Mango numbers.

The Grape looks and smells very much like the purple Welch's I drank as a small, sober lad, and it doesn't taste so different, either, though it is somewhat less sweet. I'm not sure I would guess there was alcohol if I hadn't read the label's promise of 8% ABV. Is that a good thing? Honestly, it probably is. You don't want to taste the alcohol they use in this class of "premium malt beverage." Does it make you feel kind of skanky to drink a relatively high-proof purple booze that is so clearly supposed to taste like soda pop? Yes. Now for the Orange Citrus.

Yup, smells like Orange Crush, tastes like it too. Same deal as the Grape: a little less sugar than soda, no hint of alcohol, and a tasty, sleazy way to get a $3 buzz. Mike's Harder Punches are the best drink of their kind I've ever had.