What is malt liquor?
Malt liquor celebrates decadence and the relentless pursuit of leisure. Join us, won’t you, for an in-depth look at the brew that fills your 40.
June 04, 2021
It’s dangerous to take yourself too seriously. Seriousness, while not a clinical condition, must be carefully managed. When you’re sitting on your front porch sipping a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, though, your most serious life challenge is just not dropping the dang thing. Let’s talk about malt liquor, friends.
What is malt liquor?
Malt liquor is typically a strong (or wildly strong), low-hopped beer brewed with a blend of grains. This is the ultimate no-frills, drink-whatever-the-heck-you-like kind of brew. Cheap? We say “affordable”. Low-brow? Maybe a little, but hey, we’re not running for president over here, just enjoying ourselves.
Malt liquor history
Malt liquor production took off after Prohibition, as beer in general was becoming lighter-bodied and geared towards a mass audience. Lagers were overtaking ales in the market, and drinkability was king. Malt liquor offered a way to brew lots of high-alcohol, light-bodied beer without charging too much for it. For products like this, you can have a ton of fun with the right approach, but it’s important to remember that the hangover’s never really worth it, so pace yourself and keep your water glass handy.
What is malt liquor made of?
Malt liquor derives from beer-like ingredients, with malted barley forming the backbone - hey, malt’s in the name. Breweries use other ingredients, or “adjuncts”, such as corn, rice and cane sugar to lighten the flavor and increase alcohol content. Adjuncts are cheaper and more readily available than barley, so they help keep the price low, too. Malt liquor differs from beer significantly in that hop content is very low to nonexistent. IPA this ain’t.
So what does malt liquor taste like?
Malt liquor should be a comforting, smooth blend of beer-adjacent flavors: some sweet corn, toasty barley, honey, fruit and maybe some perfume-like alcohol character in stronger versions. Here are some famous malt liquors and how they taste.
Mickey’s has an aroma of clover honey, malt and fruit and a delicately sweet, smooth, toasty flavor. It’s an easy drinker, not super strong and those “grenade” bottles are irresistible. ABV: 5.6%
For us, King Cobra probably has the most corn sweetness of the major malt liquors, so if you’re a bourbon fan, this might be up your alley. ABV: 6%
Colt 45 has a nice, clean lager aroma, and a decent blend of barley and corn flavor. Only Colt 45 has Billy Dee Williams’s “works every time” guarantee, so bear that in mind. ABV: 6%
Olde English 800
Though neither olde nor English, Olde English has its charm. Pouring a dark gold, it’s quite malty to the point that it might remind you of a lighter-bodied, sweeter maibock. It has some lovely bready yeast aroma, as well. ABV: 5.9%
Steel Reserve 211 High Gravity
Steel Reserve is where the ABV trail starts to steepen. This malt liquor smells sweet and boozy, and you’ll confirm that with the flavor. This one carries much of the corn sweetness and touch of malt that the others have, but they’ve turned it to 211. You’ll smell the alcohol vapor on the nose, which is a little intimidating but also intriguing in a primal kind of way. Watch your step here at 8% ABV.
Malt liquor FAQs
What’s the difference between malt liquor and liquor?
Malt liquor isn’t “liquor” in the sense that it’s not a distilled spirit like vodka or whiskey. Many malt liquor brands have a high alcohol content but they’re nowhere near as strong as spirits. Boiled like beer and fermented with yeast, they’re spiritually much closer to the light lager beer style.
What proof is malt liquor? It's usually strong, right?
Correct. We determine proof by multiplying ABV times 2, and malt liquor skews strong. An average-strength beer like Budweiser clocks in at 5% (10 proof). Malt liquor punches in a different weight class, starting with lovely, refined Mickey’s at 5.6% (that’s low end). As we mentioned, Olde English, King Cobra and Colt 45 are right around 6%. From there on up, the sky - or perhaps the Loko - is the limit.
What does high gravity mean?
High gravity generally translates to “high alcohol content”. In brewing, “gravity” refers to the amount of fermentable sugars in a product before yeast fermentation. Higher gravity supplies more “fuel” for fermentation, and therefore higher alcohol content. Some malt liquors, like 8.1% Steel Reserve, include this in their marketing. Four Loko made headlines with their ultra-high gravity drinks, maxing out with Four Loko Black at a frankly terrifying 14% ABV. For products like this, we follow summer camp swimming policy: have fun, but by all means bring a buddy and respect the elements.
What is flavored malt liquor?
Malt liquor’s smooth flavor makes a good canvas for other flavors and ingredients. Malt-based, flavored “alcopops” like Smirnoff Ice and Anheuser Busch’s Lime-a-rita proved that there’s a big market for sweet/tart, boozy soft drinks. Even Steel Reserve got into it with some fun, fruity offerings. These beverages tend to fall between 5 and 8% alcohol (though Four Loko is back at it again with the crazy high ABV). If there’s a fruit flavor you like, you can probably find it in this section.
Is hard seltzer malt liquor?
Flavored malt blazed the trail for the hard seltzers that we crush so consistently in these modern times. Most hard seltzers, like Truly and White Claw use cane sugar - not grains - for fermentation, so they aren’t technically malt beverages. Think you can taste the difference between can and malt beverages? Grab some of each and do a blind tasting!
Does Four Loko have caffeine?
Not anymore. In 2010, they decided that high ABV and copious caffeine was a bridge too far. That signalled the end of the “wild west” phase of malt liquor. If you’re still interested in an alcohol/caffeine medley, PBR’s got you covered. We have to admit: we did NOT see that one coming.
So what malt liquor is best?
We usually point aspiring malt liquor connoisseurs to Mickey’s. It’s clean, complex and approachable enough that it won’t scare the uninitiated. It’s different enough from standard beer that it might just intrigue you to try something more... assertive.
When to drink malt liquor
Malt liquors - both flavored and standard - groove with hot summer days in the park or sweating over the grill. Try malt liquor in place of light beer after (well, probably DURING) your softball game or just enjoy it with pretzels and peanuts while watching the ballgame. Split a Four Loko with a friend on a Friday night and see what conversations develop. We also like Four Loko as an added boardgame wildcard.
Malt liquor has character, confidence and often an edge to it. Hey, we respect that and we often enjoy it in the most whimsical of life’s situations, though you WILL have to come down off the ol’ high horse. Come for the malt liquor and stay for the shenanigans with your next drizly order!