High-Proof and Premium Malt Liquors: Are They Worth Drinking?

40 oz of Malt LiquorIt’s sold under names like Colt 45, King Cobra, and Steel Reserve. It’s marketed as a high-powered beer for people who want more than just the pale American brews everyone else drinks. It is, of course, high-proof premium malt liquor. But is it worth drinking?

There is definitely a lot of hype surrounding premium malt liquors. What we want to know is whether or not all of that hype is just marketing on steroids. If so, malt liquors might be terribly overpriced. If not, perhaps far too many of us are missing out on something really good.

What is malt liquor?

In simplest terms, malt liquor is just a high-powered beer with a greater alcohol content than standard beer. Where standard beer typically comes in under 4%, malt liquor is closer to 6% or greater. Some can be as high as 8%, as is the case with Olde English HG 800. According to Modern Drunkard Magazine, Old English is a case of the bad getting “badder.” We assume they mean that as a compliment.

Beyond just higher alcohol content, one of the other defining elements of malt liquor is its color. It’s not so much the shade―it can range from a light straw color to a pale amber―it’s the fact that it’s not clean. It’s like looking at a hazy sky on a hot summer day. You can see the blue, but something just isn’t right.

The important thing to note is that malt liquor is not really liquor. Because it’s a malt-based beverage, it’s nothing more than beer with a cool name and a greater buzz capacity. In fact, the modern term has nothing to do with its origins back in the 17th century.

Is the “malt liquor” designation just a marketing strategy?

You could make a case that classifying something as malt liquor is just a marketing strategy. You could also make the case that it’s not. For example, the state of California mandates a malt beverage exceeding 4% alcohol content be labeled as a malt liquor, ale, porter, or stout.

A company might choose the malt liquor name to satisfy legal requirements. Then again, given the choice between the names listed in the previous paragraph, malt liquor might be easier to market to your chosen demographic. Just think of the names and labels of most malt liquors, and you’ll see what we mean. Calling Colt 45 an ale or porter just doesn’t cut it.

Calling something malt liquor gives it that extra kick in the pants that says something. Where “stout” and “ale” conjure up images of a group of middle-aged men enjoying Oktoberfest in Bavaria, “malt liquor” provokes images of youth and manliness. And guess who malt liquor is marketed to?

Is it true that malt liquor is stronger than a typical lager?

The thing about malt liquor is that it’s about more than just alcohol content. It’s also about the brew process and the ingredients used. For example, Beer Advocate Magazine says that very little hops, if any, are used in brewing malt liquor. Without the hops it’s a very different product.

In place of hops, brewers tend to use corn, rice, and various types of sugars. They also tend to use different enzymes that will break down the various ingredients in order to yield a higher alcohol content. All of this together means malt liquor has a very strong and challenging flavor, to say the least. Beer Advocate also says it’s incredibly dry.

When you combine the high alcohol content with a powerful flavor you end up with a brew best enjoyed on its own. Forget about trying to pair it with your favorite foods during a social gathering with your friends. If you’re planning to drink malt liquor, just open the 40-ounce bottle and get going.

Do Europeans make malt liquors?

The idea of a European malt liquor is virtually nonexistent. Yes, they do have beers with high alcohol content. But beer drinking in Europe is an entirely different animal. That being said, if you want to try a brew that will put even the best malt liquor on its backside, consider Tactical Nuclear Penguin from a Scottish brewery known as BrewDog.

This very challenging brew was the subject of a Time Magazine article when it first made it to the U.S. in 2010. What’s so challenging about the Penguin? Try an alcohol content of 32%. That’s right boys and girls, 32% ABV. Your father’s lager this ain’t!

Other breweries around Europe pride themselves on their higher alcohol content beers as well. The main difference is that they export their beers to the States, while American breweries don’t respond in kind. It’s a superiority thing. That may be why the Europeans haven’t endorsed the malt liquor name.

Now that you have all this information you’re probably still wondering, “Are high-proof, premium malt liquors worth drinking?” It all depends on whether or not you’re looking for 40 ounces of overpriced kick in the pants. If you’re drinking just to drink, you’ll probably enjoy malt liquor. Otherwise you’re probably better off sticking with a more traditional beer.