March 29, 2002
12:29 PM   Subscribe

The Philadelphia Daily News has recently covered a series of articles on "Malternatives," those hard liquor laced beverages like hard lemonades and vodka based alterna-beers that have sprung up in the last year. Even though they contain 100% distilled alcohol, they are taxed as beer, saving Smirnoff over $80 million in taxes last year alone. Among their other advantages for manufacturers, they get to advertise on TV and be placed for sale next to milder forms of alcohol, dodging laws against hard liquor. Is this a boon for the industry or deceptive practices?
posted by mathowie (27 comments total)
I had alays wondered why the original wine based coolers had completely disapeared and been replaced, sometimes under the same branding with malt based beverages.

As for 100% distilled alcohol, to me you can still taste the beer in it so I'm not sure about the distillation figure reported.
posted by BentPenguin at 12:41 PM on March 29, 2002

I just hope that the market gets saturated with RTD's (Ready To Drink) soon, because I hate drinking in America. The drinks made by bartenders are too strong a lot of the time, because a lot of the pourers aren't controlled, and don't stop after one shot. I am praying for Barcardi Spritzers (the watermelon flavour is deliciously fruity) and Solitchnaya Lemon Ruskis (that shit will take the enamel off your teeth). I love them.

And what they say about them being good for people who don't like beer or wine who also still want to drink with their friends is true. I don't care that people say they are marketed to underage drinkers, because it means that I can drink alcohol that isn't beer. Also, I have no social conscience. Although, they really shouldn't advertise them on television before 10pm, and you shouldn't be able to buy them at the supermarket. I don't know if you can or not, but you shouldn't be able to.
posted by animoller at 12:50 PM on March 29, 2002

Alcohol by volume for these beverages is the same as beer (around 5%). So I don't really understand why selling/advertising them alongside beer is really a problem, unless you think some ways of producing alcohol are inherently more evil than others.
posted by lbergstr at 12:52 PM on March 29, 2002

The actual contents of these beverages have confused me somewhat. I always heard that the official line was that they contained no hard alcohol. The articles imply differently. And the claims on the bottle-- that the drinks are "made with the flavor" of the liquors-- doesn't help matters. (The claim is especially ludicrous on something like Skyy Blue, since by U.S. law, vodka has to be odorless and tasteless.)

Of course, the whole thing could be made a lot easier, from a legal standpoint, if we liberalized our drinking laws to recognize that hard liquor and beer still contained the same drug, regardless of the amount of its presence or how it was made.

At the same time, the argument that these drinks are "gateway drugs" to drinking hard alcohol is ludicrous. When are these advocates like George Hacker going to realize that teenagers like to drink, period?

When I was in high school, my friends and I went through our fair shares of Bud Light, Coors Light, and Natty Light. Rest assured it wasn't because we liked the taste. If there was something better tasting we could've afforded, we would've drank it. My point is, teenagers don't start drinking because booze tastes like soda. They do it because they like being drunk.

The drinks made by bartenders are too strong a lot of the time, because a lot of the pourers aren't controlled, and don't stop after one shot.

But your bartender should know when to stop pouring to measure out a shot, if s/he was trained properly. I wouldn't say it's a general problem among bartenders, though I suppose it depends where you go.

you shouldn't be able to buy them at the supermarket. I don't know if you can or not, but you shouldn't be able to.

You can, anywhere you can buy beer. Let me ask you, though: why not?
posted by nath at 1:07 PM on March 29, 2002

you shouldn't be able to buy them at the supermarket.

Actually, supermarkets are far more stringent on selling alcohol to minors than your average liquor store or gas station. Also, they're not 100% alcohol -- more like 5-10%, about the same range as beer and wine.

Here's an article from showing just how much we'll be seeing Maleternatives on TV in the coming months.
posted by me3dia at 1:10 PM on March 29, 2002

I totally agree, lbergstr.

As for the other comments:

animoller: Yes you can buy them in grocery stores in states non-Puritanical enough to allow the sale of alcohol in such stores (read: NOT Massachusetts). But why shouldn't they be advertised before 10? As has been pointed out, they are no more alcoholic than many beers out there.

BentPenguin: taste the beer in it? I may be wrong, but I thought it was the hops that made the beer taste the way it does, these drinks are not hop-based (at least as far as I know).

mathowie: hardly deceptive advertising. They are advertised as "Malt Beverages" and while they may contain hard liquor, they are in fact only as alcoholic as beer.
posted by turacma at 1:11 PM on March 29, 2002

I do think, by the way, that Bacardi Silver is deceptive advertising: don't they have a rum by that name, or something similar? Maybe I'm thinking of tequila.
posted by me3dia at 1:16 PM on March 29, 2002

"sprung up in the last year" ?

I remember being all hyped up about this cool new drink called Zima. One was enough for me! I ran back to my Guiness.
posted by awcole72 at 1:25 PM on March 29, 2002

me3dia - too true about the odd advertising on Bacardi Silver. I tried one at a party recently, fully expecting it to taste something like rum. Instead I got a lemony drink in which I could not taste any type of alcohol, let alone rum specifically. As I tasted it, I was surprised, but in no way was I upset (as someone who uses the phrase "deceptive advertising" sounds) that they had advertised it as Bacardi Silver. I just thought the name was bad marketing and they should have named it something closer to what it really is and tastes like to better attract consumers.

As for being able to buy alcohol before 10 and at supermarkets...why should you NOT be able to? I seriously doubt these things prevent teens from getting alcohol. Anyway, the comment above is very true about supermarkets; they are much more careful about checking ID's than any liquor store.
posted by rio at 1:48 PM on March 29, 2002

I know that it was probably unintentional on your part Matt, but your post is a little misleading. It's might be because it would be difficult to believe that television networks would willingly turn down advertising dollars...

The prohibition against hard alcohol on TV isn't something mandated by law. It's a "gentleman's agreement" between the networks that they wouldn't advertise those types of beverages.

NBC went against those standards in December. Public response had them reconsider the decision.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently published a press release thanking NBC for the change of mind, but also listing some of the manufacturers of the malternatives you mention, and hint at a request for some pretty harsh restrictions on advertisements for beer.

Might blowback from the release of these distilled beverages to circumvent advertising standards result in stricter advertising limitations for malted drinks? It's a possibility, but I hope not. The budweiser and miller commercials have been some of the more interesting ads on tv in years.
posted by bragadocchio at 1:51 PM on March 29, 2002

I don't think alcohol fullstop should be advertised on television before 10pm. As most alcohol ads go, they usually try to make it look enticing and cool. People are going to drink when they're underage regardless, but there should be at least some attempt to not advertise when most kids are watching television.

The reason why I think they shouldn't be in the supermarket, is because all the RTDs back home actually contain hard liquor, like vodka or rum. I don't think the "heavy stuff" should be in plain view for everyone, no matter what their age, to see. I don't know what this malt beverage business is all about, but if that means they can sell it supermarket and market it like beer, it does seem a little dodgy. (Also, cheap! Where's the vodka?!)
posted by animoller at 1:57 PM on March 29, 2002

It is both a boon to the industry and a deceptive practice. Not only that, but it is a thinly disguised attempt to market toward youth. But, so what? In my teens we'd get ahold of a bottle of something nasty, say...Sloe Gin, and mix it up with something like 7up...viola! Candy flavoured vacation in a bottle. Only problem with that was that we'd all wake up with a pounding headache and a set of cherry-red, sugar encrusted lips. Ouch.

Nath mentioned something that I hadn't heard: That vodka, by U.S. law, must be odorless and tasteless. The actual wording is: "Vodka is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Of course, the lemon, mandarin, orange, vanilla, etc. vodkas must be the exception.

Of those "malternatives," I like the Mike's Hard Lemonade. Tasty, but not presumptious.
posted by gnz2001 at 2:02 PM on March 29, 2002

I can hardly believe you have had to put up with these evil monstrosities for only a year. It is alcohol for people who don't like alcohol, and , at least in the U.K, marketed at kids, or very dim people who will knock it back like pop. With predictable cosequences.
Smirnoff Ice doesn't even contain Smirnoff for gawds sake, which may or may not be a good thing.
posted by Fat Buddha at 2:14 PM on March 29, 2002

I vote "good thing", FB. Smirnoff is not the finest vodka going. What we need is for them to come out with a absinthe based malternative.
posted by gnz2001 at 2:41 PM on March 29, 2002

As for being able to buy alcohol before 10 and at supermarkets...why should you NOT be able to?

I'm a bit torn on the supermarket thing. I live in Massachusetts, where supermarkets generally don't sell liquor (there are exceptions). I don't think keeping it out supermarkets does much to keep kids from buying liquor, but I think that having it in the supermarket sends the wrong message to kids: "Well, let's see now...I need bread and milk and a jug of Stoli...OK, junior, now let's hit the cereal aisle."

But of course, there's the standard "In Europe kids are allowed to drink, and they learn to handle it better...." argument. So, I don't know...
posted by jpoulos at 3:15 PM on March 29, 2002

The only reason Blue Laws still exist in Massachusetts and Rhode Island is because the liquor stores lobby so hard to keep them. Otherwise supermarkets would take all of the beer and most of the wine profits. Laws preventing liquor stores from opening on Sundays disappear all the time.

Thankfully, I live in New Hampshire now, so beer, fireworks and guns are never more than a short drive away.
posted by yerfatma at 3:25 PM on March 29, 2002

Wait a minute, jpoulos, are you saying that you'd prefer that the government help you distinguish, for your kids' sake, which groceries/supplies are for adults only and which are suitable for the whole family? Why shouldn't I be able to pick up some Stoli when I'm shopping for Kix and hot cocoa? I think I'm articulate enough to explain to my kids that "This is daddy's beverage." It sure beats the hell out of living in a state such as Oregon, where buying hard liquor is quite a bit more of a pain in the ass. (You have to seek out the state-run liquor store, determine when exactly it is open, as hours are limited...)
If only I could pick up some fireworks at the Safeway store, that would rule...the big ones, that thump like mortars when they leave the launch tube.
posted by gnz2001 at 3:28 PM on March 29, 2002

I'm glad that here in Michigan, some grocery stores sell hard liquor as well as beer and wine, and virtually every grocery store (not to mention party store*) sells beer and wine. One thing I've never understood is the "no liquor sales" law on Christmas day. Whatever happened to the separation of church and state?

*Are we the only ones who call a liquor store a "party store"?
posted by Oriole Adams at 3:38 PM on March 29, 2002

Can you buy paper hats, rent a champagne fountain, and get a tank of helium? If so, I'd call it a Party Store too!
posted by gnz2001 at 3:41 PM on March 29, 2002

i don't know what my opinion is. i bought a bunch of those red bull/vodka cocktails, and i can't think about nothing but how happy i am.
posted by jcterminal at 3:43 PM on March 29, 2002

"the ATF now acknowledges that some of the flavored malt beverages on the market derive 100 percent of their kick not from fermentation but from the distilled alcohol in the flavorings"

now that's a loophole
posted by roboto at 3:46 PM on March 29, 2002

Malternatives are disgusting rippoffs of what could be a really good product. In canada these products do not contain the flavor of hard liquor in them, they contain HARD LIQUOR. Canada also has a new breed of beverages that combine hard liquor and stimulants for a real rush.

If I wanted a nasty malt beverage I would start drinking Old English 800, malt is pretty much the cheapest grossest thing you can make liquor out of. aside from wood.

As far as restrictions go, they are idiotic, this is the one legal drug we do have, and "saving the children" got old along time ago.
posted by vincentmeanie at 5:09 PM on March 29, 2002

Oriole, I'll never figure out the reasoning behind local laws--my mom and I moved to Kansas when I was in high school. There you could find a liquor store on every corner but to be served a cocktail you had to join a private club, bring your own bottle and be charged to the service. At least that's the way it was then.

More on topic, I'm just wondering when the malternative XTC Tea is coming out for the Jagermeister and Red Bull crowd. Look out!

Wait a minute, here, I just looked up in they really have red bull/vodka cocktails, jcterminal? That is scary: visualize alert drunks behind the wheel talking on cellphones...
posted by y2karl at 5:19 PM on March 29, 2002

One point that seems to be missing here is that many of these beverages are not just promoted by advertising targeting teenagers, but specifically targeting teenage girls. As an underage drinker myself, I can attest to the fact that many "malternative" beverages are hugely popular amongst teen girls: Mike's Hard Lemonade and Hooch to name two of the more poplular ones. While the idea that "teens will drink anything they can get their hands on" is partly true, in my experience that is an attitude and experience more characteristic of teen boys than teen girls. Girls are generally looking for something tastier-- whether it's fruity mixed drinked, wine coolers or fruity malt beverages.
posted by bonheur at 5:20 PM on March 29, 2002

Even though they contain 100% distilled alcohol, they are taxed as beer

I was wondering why so many of them printed "flavored beer" on the label. I thought "Why state the obvious?" Now it makes sense.

All legal issues aside, although I'm generally a Belgian Style ale man, the alcopops can be good at a summer barbecue. Sublime Hard Rasberry Lemonade is excellent. I also believe that the more restrictions we place on alcohol the more tantalizingly forbidden it's going to seem to young people. All the laws in the world didn't stop me and my freinds from procuring beer as teens, creating more now is simply a waste of time.
posted by jonmc at 5:21 PM on March 29, 2002

Er, this has been pointed out several times now, but I have yet to see a response that made any sense: These drinks contain hard liquor, contain, as in it is one of several ingredients. The total amount of alcohol in the drink is not more than beer or wine. What difference does it make if you're drinking diluted distilled alcohol or a weak fermented alcohol? Why should the laws distinguish between drinks that are equivalent in terms of the regulated substance?
posted by Nothing at 10:36 PM on March 29, 2002

These points bear reiteration: the alcohol in the drinks is 100% distilled, but only constitutes 5% or so of the drink, so they should be taxed just like beer. Yes, they are malt beverages, but they contain no beer to taste. And the whole "marketing to kids" angle gets really old after a while. I mean, I had to enter my age to see the Bacardi Silver website. (I'm grumpy, and I'm famed shoe designer Trevor Santos. Ye Gods. Obviously Bacardi's web people have been playing one of those avatar thingies.) Myself, I was born just in time to legally begin drinking at 18 (Wisconsin changed its law, but grandfathered in folks like me, so as not to 'take away a right' from someone who'd already attained it.) I can honestly say I hardly ever got carded in the beginning, and now I'm 38 and I get carded. And I don't think I have a baby face. It's a completely different social environment (and of course that pushes a lot of teenage drinking underground). Anyway, I'd love to punch that do-gooder Hacker in the nose for being such an idiotic ass. "Designed to lure young people to drink"? How about "designed to be a tasty beverage of which people will drink many"?

These are hardly the first beverages that mask the flavor of alcohol. We've been through a decade of microbrew beers laced with fruit juice, honey, even chocolate and vanilla. We've had a resurgence of hard ciders. And then a surge of popular hard lemonades. (My friends and I regularly drink Rick's Spike Lemonade, and we found that the Bacardi Silver is oddly barely distinguishable.) IMHO the only thing that differentiates these is that the hard liquor companies are trying to enter a burgeoning market that, perhaps, gives them brand identity and loyalty that will transfer over when people want real hard liquor drinks. The article tries to portray these drinks as some kind of real break from existing practice, but as I just said, the drinks are actually hard to distinguish from stuff that's already on the market. Much ado over nothing?

This isn't even the first time that the hard liquor industry has tried to appeal with crossover products -- they've been selling stuff like Bacardi Limon for several years now. (Interestingly, the Bacardi family is actually descended from the inventor of rum -- and still runs the company, even after evacuating Cuba. There's a tricky legal case essentially revolving around the question of whether the "abandoned" company in Cuba retains the trademark to the family name.

Bottom line: these are tasty drinks that try to get you to suck down more than one. The citrus drinks, especially, are really easy to pour down. That makes them attractive to young adults (and even nearly middle-aged adults, like me).

Frankly, this freakishly alarmist article reminded me of nothing so much as Billy Sunday preaching against Demon Rum.
posted by dhartung at 8:03 AM on March 30, 2002

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