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Malt Liquor: A Historical Examination

18 May 2008 28 Comments

The other day I made a joke to one of my coworkers about 40’s and she had no idea what I was talking about. I always think really hard when someone doesn’t get my jokes, and it made me realize that the 40-ounce beverage, and malt liquor in general, has somehow become a distinctly black phenomenon that is difficult for foreigners to fully grasp. But how did American black folks become the key market for consumption of this drink? Judging by the abundance of advertising that I’ve collected during an insomnia-fueled investigation into this topic, through good old-fashioned marketing, that’s how!

Malt liquor can have up to twice the alcohol content of regular beer (between 6 and 10%) and is usually cheaper, too. It was originally marketed towards middle class whites by Goetz and called “Country Club Malt Liquor.”


It was around this time that the “40 ounce” was born. Trying to liken malt liquor to champagne or wine, amazingly, didn’t really work. So things simply had to go in a new direction.

1960’s

The smartest marketing move was to highlight the kick that the extra alcohol content in malt liquor promised, so brands like Colt 45 presented themselves as potent virility enhancers, meaning it was only a matter of time before black folks got involved. Not only did we add legitimacy to the image of malt liquor as a rough n’ tumble beverage, but the post-Civil Rights Movement purchasing power of black folks presented a great time to create a more complete image for the stuff (in case you’re wondering, this is also around the time that menthol cigarettes got a little blacker in the minds of advertising executives). Check out the black gun-slingin’ cowboy in this commercial – “it goes with the gun” is a harbinger of things to come that is so very hard to ignore.

Is it just me or does it seem like dude would rather be doing Shakespeare?

1970s

It was clearly time to marry the two worlds by featuring a personality popular with all of us. Well look what we have here…

I find this commercial particularly unthinkable. What is Redd Foxx doing driving in the snow to meet up with some white man to drink brews?

Malt liquor was still being targeted to everyone and anyone in many ads, but black folks and those who wished to be like them simply could not ignore the pop-lockin’ in this Schlitz ad! I have to admit that the “Where’s Waldo?” bodyshirts and criss-crossed suspenders make me wanna crack open a cold one and pour out a little for Fred “Re-Run” Berry.

Of course, with the success of plain old malt liquor came extensions of this tasty and potent beverage, such as Champale, which was one of the first malt liquors targeted directly at black folks. If you haven’t tried it, it’s got that Cool Ranch Dorito thing going on – you can’t help but drink more because it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. The effort at customizing the message for black America was rather impressive:


Remind me again why we’re so impressed by the Williams sisters?

1980s

A former pro football player who starred in movies like Black Ceasar, Hell Up In Harlem, and The Legend of Nigger Charley? Wouldn’t they be crazy not to wrap Fred Williamson’s hand around a can of King Cobra Malt Liquor in a commercial? Brace yourself for homegirl singing the hook halfway through this ad.

But then came Billy Dee Williams. Mmmmmmm Billy Dee. If anyone ever said “I’m a wife-beatin’ sex machine who uses more hair products than you do” with his very presence, it was him. And he let us know that it works every time – not most of the time or some of the time, but every time. Pretty accurate, actually, because if you can get a woman drunk off of malt liquor “do you want my arm to fall off?” is kind of a rhetorical question (that was for my oldhead movie buffs).

1990s

By the 90’s, hip-hop was a legitimate art form (and advertising vehicle). As much as we all hated on MC Hammer for doing Pepsi ads, by the middle of the decade all of our favorite rappers were doing endorsements, and St Ides had it all on lock. It’s flashback time – how many of these commercials do you remember as if they were actual hits?

I love O’Shea, but how did he go from this to Are We There Yet?

If the 40-ounce is good for anything, it’s for pouring a little out, and now is the right moment.

I wasn’t even old enough to drink and I knew that by heart. Full song here.

Today

In recent years malt liquor is mostly for teenagers, alcoholics needing a fix, and broke people, even though its success still depends on the black (and now Latino) community. Due to negative press from the hip-hop and scientific communities (a 40 actually contains as much alcohol as five shots of hard liquor), it just isn’t very “cool” to guzzle such swill. The advertising for malt liquor proper has all but disappeared, and my guess is that’s because the stuff pretty much sells itself (as anything with the nickname “liquid crack” ought to). The $1.00 – $3.00 price can’t be beat, and with brand extensions like the colorful fruit-flavored “St Ides Special Brew,” why bother advertising when the price and bright colors sell the product on it’s own?

The End.

28 Comments »

  • Anonymous said:

    This has dissertation topic written all over it.

  • pjazzypar said:

    Home girl singing the King Cobra theme was none other than Evelyn “Champaign” King (no pun intended). I actually had some Champale during my youth and it was horrible, so was its pink counterpart. You are absolutely correct about this garbage selling itself in the inner city and urban communities. Suburban stores in white areas don’t even stock malt liquor.

  • kenn said:

    wow. pour one out for this dark moment in black history.

  • Julian said:

    This is brilliant.

  • Qucifer said:

    I’m sofaking DEAD that you called out on Billie Dee Williams pimptastic man fumes!!!

    (cause you know you can probably smell that man before he comes in proper!)

  • michelle m. said:

    Was that Evelyn Champagne King in the King Cobra commercial?! And for some reason, I don’t remember the Biggie or WuTang commercials…must have been in dance class everytime they came on…

  • Regina said:

    I remember the ice cube, wu tang and biggie commercials, and also the Billie Dee commercials. I was actually a St. Ides drinker (the 22 oz bottles) years ago. I had no idea it was originally targeted to the “white” audiences. That is very interesting!

  • Invisible Woman said:

    Excellent post.

    I worked as a temp for the company that made and marketed St. Ides and Steel Reserve. I was lectured on how I was never to say “malt liquor” but instead say “malt beverage” at all times. Who did they think they were foolin’?

    They would also ask me repeatedly to take cases of their poison home. I was the only Black there (save for one questionable mulatto) and my refusals made their blood boil. How dare I be Black and not want to take home cases of their “malt beverage”. I shoulda been dancing a jig!

    Personally, I just wanted to do my job and not get involved. The tension got so bad that I had to quit. Can you imagine? But I refused to let them think that every Negro was thirsting for that sh*t, giant life sized poster of Biggie in the reception room nonwithstanding, haha!

  • Invisible Woman said:

    P.S. Why is that first dude drinking his Colt 45 in a chalice? lmao

  • Aaliyah said:

    Thembi, you are a genius. This is amazing. I actually remember buying St. Ides 40s to make my college chicken & spades parties more authentic. The fruit flavored ones tasted good. And no, I’m not ashamed.

  • Anonymous said:

    ok so why is tk from the wayans brothers dad playing in that colt 45 commercial. it immediately made me think of hollywood shuffle black actors school or whatever. sidebar: why was i watching disney with the kids and up pops tk on “suite life of zack and cody”? good to see he is still working though. hell of a hustler from a slimier poor man’s jerome from martin to that disney dough.

    tk from wayns brother. an apollo legend.

  • justjudith said:

    phenomenal post. i never knew there was such a thing as country club malt liquor lol.

  • Siditty said:

    My dad still has a bottle of champale in their cupboard. He bought it at least 25 years ago. He got excited that it was an unopened bottle with a piece of glass in it, and kept it as a collectors item LOL.

    Was it me, or did anyone else get scared of the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull? Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves dancing, and then a big bull comes crashing through the front door, glass and all. I wonder how the animal rights people viewed these commercials?

    Old boy in the 1960’s Colt 45 commercial had me laughing. He at one point takes a drink and turns away with a look of disgust, but by the end of the commercial he is drunk enough to advocate guns and beer being used together.

    I remember when Billie Dee did all the black commercials and had his own line of cologne through Avon. Classy Billie Dee. Who knew Lando Calrissian had it in him.

  • j said:

    Wow, I had always assumed that Champale was a cheap sparkling wine like Andre. I have been schooled.

  • Ehav Ever said:

    I am with IW. What is with the chalice? The next time I see some Coyote’s in my neighborhood I will remember to bring my Colt 45s with me and shoot them and shoot myself. Now if I can only remember which Colt 45 to use on them and which one to use on myself.

  • StillaPanther2 said:

    Sister Thembi… Were you aware that prior to these beers being advertised toward minorities,there were 7-8 ozs. There were potent..so the size was manageable for social drinking. During my youth (1950-60), that was the con that now we can drink the “classy beers” that could get you messed up. Little was known that the double the size can was designed for your unsocial drinking. My present mottq I tell to the youth I meet…. if the beer-can have a gun on the lable or an animal or a “natural disaster” dont drink it. What do you think a can with “Hurricane” will do to you. Plus alcohol and weapons (Colt 45) should never be thought of in the same mental time period.

  • Lola Gets said:

    Ok, this post was classic! I was laughing.out.loud in the library!

    You should check out
    http://www.dallaspenn.com for his many Champale posts. Those had me crying too.

    L

  • bourgieadventures said:

    WOW at those St. Ides commercials. I remember those ads, but I was too young to really grasp how freakin’ straight up and in your face they were. No pulling punches there… get drunk, get your girl in the mood, get your jimmy right. Sheesh!

    Good post. I always talk shit about 40s because I hate how the marketing is so lopsided towards Black folks. “Liquid crack”? Great.

  • Gadgetgirl said:

    Ah…memories Lol! I remember my ex Step mom in the ’80s letting me sip some Pink Champale when I was around 11 or so (Fix your faces! Back then it wasn’t considered abuse…) and spat it out! Ugh! In a weird way it was a blessing as I had no desire to drink dreck like 40s (or even beer). I’ve been around chronic 40 OZ’ers and that s_it seeps through their pores and funks up the room!

    I forgot the name of this one tall can of ML that was like $.50 in the hood. I think it had a dog on it or something and there were crazy rumors about the crap that was in it. Too bad 2 cans for a buck was too much like right for a lot of folks. SMH

  • theblackactor.com said:

    This was a great post. I missed half of it (they have YouTube on lock at my job so I can’t see half the stuff). But as a reader, thanks for taking the time to research this.

    Sadly interesting.

  • Vee (Scratch) said:

    Thembi, Great Post.
    This will definitely inspire a future post and of course you will be linked.

    I remember all of the commercials from Fred Williamson and on. The Ice Cube St. Ides drops were classic hits! He definitely has some regrets about doing those commercials but at least he got the corporation to put money back into the community.
    I know and have seen many people drown their lives and potential away in 40oz’s.

    I have a cousin that still drinks them to this day. He drinks and smokes and his body uses everything possible to filter the toxins out of his body. So he does have a horrible odor emanating from him OFTEN.

    . . . 40 ounces may be one thing, but the continued marketing of liquor through hip hop music may have devastating effects in years to come. Some people shell out $100 of dollars and support a particular brand because it is the flavor of the month. Some brands really do not need to advertise when many rappers offer brand recognition and marketing services for free.

    End note, interestingly enough the owners of Ciroc are upset with Diddy because he’s usually seen drinking Patron – a ridiculously high priced product.

  • coolcrys said:

    OH HOW I LOOOOOVED this post. I love how you took it back…showed references adn evidence and all the while made me laugh until I feel outta my chair.

    DO IT GIRL!!! DO IT!

  • DP said:

    Waiting for the drop on Cisco, Thunderbird, Night Train, Mad Dog 20/20, Wild Irish Rose and Brass Monkey.

    Now those were some ‘hood drinks before all that fancy hard to pronounce shit came around.

  • Anonymous said:

    Nevah has such a post (and poison) brought back such fond memories of what had to have been the worst think I’ve ever ingested. 40’s of “tha crookid lettah” and shrimp fried rice in Drew Hall dormatory!
    Also, a Special shout out to dp for breaking out the Cisco.

  • Ann said:

    Although large containers were used during World War II, because of shortages, malt liquor was sold in small containers after the war.

    After Coca Cola found success using larger containers, it hit the beer industry to do the same. I don’t think 40 ounces were introduced until the 1980s, not earlier as your post claims. But, check me out and see if I’m wrong.

  • Billy said:

    Where was the Rufus Thomas commercial for the Schlitz bull? The one where he wears the pink hotpants? Surely the epitome of malt liquor advertising.

    Here in Alabama we couldn’t buy the 40-oz in the 1970’s. I spent my GI bill money on 6-packs.

  • Nicole said:

    And there is there little known, white-trash malt beverage “Mickie’s”, fully embraced by the urban Irish-American nitwit’s of the 1990’s. (Really, I think House of Pain had an endorsement deal, they mentioned Mickie’s so much.) Very interesting times, when the underaged unwittingly participated in the larger sociological experiment of purchasing 40’s from a certain store on Girard Avenue that never checked id’s. Although dressed nearly the same, the scheming Irish kids grabbed Mickie’s and the scheming black kids grabbed crooked letter.
    Thus ends my small contribution to the history of malt liquor.
    (just remembering drinking that swill made me a little nauseous.)

  • ShonQuayShah said:

    on the west coast, the prefered jet fuel beverages were:
    Old English 800
    Schlitz
    and Miller High Life.

    yes, i drank st. ides in the late 80’s early 90’s and blew up behind it as well…calories for days!!!

    but they would get you sky high!!

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