Malt liquor is a North American term referring to a type of beer with high alcohol content. In legal statutes, the term often includes any alcoholic beverage not lower than 5% alcohol by volume made with malted barley. In common parlance, however, it is used for high-alcohol beers (6–7% and more) or beer-derived mixes made with ingredients and processes resembling those in American-style lager. However, this label is subject to the viewpoint of the brewer, and there are examples of brews containing high-quality, expensive ingredients that brewers have chosen to label as "malt liquors."
Malt liquor is a strong lager or ale in which sugar, corn or other adjuncts are added to the malted barley to boost the total amount of fermentable sugars in the wort, and thus the final alcoholic strength produced. These beers tend to be mildly hopped; that is, they are not very bitter.
Brewing and legal definitions
Malt liquor is typically straw to pale amber in color. While typical beer is both made primarily from barley, water, and hops, malt liquors tend to make much greater use of inexpensive adjuncts such as corn, rice, or dextrose. Use of these adjuncts, along with the addition of special enzymes, results in a higher percentage of alcohol than an average beer. Higher alcohol versions, sometimes called "High Gravity" or just "HG", may contain high levels of fusel alcohols, which gives off solvent- or fuel-like aromas and flavors.
The confusing and inconsistent use of the term 'malt liquor' has to do with the vagaries of American alcoholic beverage regulations, which can vary from state to state. In some states, "malt liquor" refers to any alcoholic beverage made by fermenting grain and water; in these states a non-alcoholic beer may also be called a non-alcoholic or non-intoxicating malt liquor. In some states, products labeled "beer" must fall below a certain alcohol content, and beers that exceed the mark must be labeled as "malt liquor". While ordinary beers in the United States average around 5% alcohol by volume, malt liquors typically range from 6% up to 9% alcohol by volume. A typical legal definition is Colorado's Rev. Stat. ss. 12-47-103(19), which provides that:
"Malt Liquors" includes beer and shall be construed to mean any beverage obtained by the alcoholic fermentation of any infusion or decoction of barley, malt, hops or any other similar products, or any combination thereof, in water containing more than three and two-tenths percent of alcohol by weight.
Alcohol percentages measured by weight translate into larger figures when re-expressed as alcohol percentages by volume, because ethanol is less dense than water.
The term "malt liquor" is documented in England in 1690 as a general term encompassing both lager and ale. The first mention of the term in North America appears in a patent issued by the Canadian government on July 6, 1842, to one G. Riley for "an improved method of brewing ale, beer, porter, and other maltliquors."
While Colt 45, St. Ides, Mickey's, Steel Reserve, King Cobra, and Olde English 800 are most closely associated with malt liquors in the United States, the beverage itself is older than these products. Clix is often credited as the first malt liquor made in the United States, granted a patent in 1948. The first widely successful malt liquor brand in America was Country Club, which was produced in the early 1950s by the M. K. Goetz Brewing Company in St. Joseph, Missouri, and marketed to middle-class white Americans.
Today, malt liquors are most often consumed by a different demographic. According to a study by Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California, malt liquor is the alcohol of choice of the homeless and unemployed, which explains the resulting stereotyping of the typical consumer. Beginning in the 1980s, many brands of malt liquor began to aggressively target this market and teamed with popular actors (such as Billy Dee Williams) or rappers in their advertisements; Ice Cube, for instance, voluntarily appeared in radio advertisements for St. Ides. Some rappers vigorously opposed this trend, feeling that malt liquor manufacturers were exploiting the African American community. For example, Chuck D, of the group Public Enemy, took a very strong anti-malt liquor stance and once sued St. Ides over an advertisement that sampled his voice without permission. It is unclear whether those that took this anti-malt liquor stance were aware that this was the alcoholic beverage of choice of the homeless and unemployed, and that they are free to make decisions, including that of their alcoholic beverages, as they see fit. Many argue that malt-liquor's high alcohol content and low price led to this trend, and the manufacturers of malt liquor provided a product that was in demand by a segment of the population, albeit one that is often the recipient of sympathy of differing socioeconomic segments.
In the American vernacular, a forty-ounce or simply forty is a glass bottle that holds 40 fluid ounces (1.18 litres) of malt liquor. Malt liquors are commonly sold in 40 fluid ounce bottles, among other sizes, as opposed to the standard twelve ounce (355 mL) bottle that contains a single serving of beer, although any malt liquors are offered in varying volumes. American domestic "malt liquors" tend to be very inexpensive although this is not necessarily true for foreign imports that are also labeled "malt liquor."
Examples of malt liquors sold in forty ounce bottles include Olde English 800, Colt 45, Mickey's, Camo 40, Black Fist, Country Club, Black Bull, Labatt Blue Dry 6.1/7.1/8.1/9.1/10.1, WildCat, Molson Dry 6.5/7.5/8.5/10.1, Private Stock, Big Bear, St. Ides, Steel Reserve 211, B40 Bull Max, King Cobra, Jeremiah Weed, and Hurricane. Dogfish Head Brewery has sporadically produced a high-end bottle-conditioned forty called "Liquor de Malt". Ballantine markets its ale in a forty ounce bottle as well.
At least for a brief period in the mid-1990s, some brands of malt liquor, including Olde English 800, Crazy Horse, and Mickey's, were available in even larger, 64-ounce glass bottles. Forty-ounce bottles are not permitted in some US states, such as Florida, where the largest container that a malt beverage may be sold at retail is 32 US fluid ounces, although there is no evidence that this has any impact on the amount any one individual may consume at a given time.
While American malt liquor brands are rarely, if ever, exported to Europe, similar inexpensive high-alcohol beers are available in many areas there; these include the "super-strength lagers" such as Tennent's Super and Carlsberg Special Brew in the United Kingdom, and in France the "bières fortes" Amsterdam Navigator, Amsterdam Maximator and Bavaria 8.6; Arboga 10.2% of Sweden or Olvi Tuplapukki and Karhu Tosi Vahva in Finland.
Another example of an imported beer labeled as "malt liquor" is German brewer Spaten's Optimator, a dopplebock that weighs in at 7.6 ABV. The name of the brew follows a longstanding tradition of dopples' ("doppel" being a German prefix for "double") ending in the suffix "-ator." It is an industry tribute to the original dopplebock, brewed by Paulaner, named Salvator ("Savior") 
In fact, there is a strong tradition of premium high-alcohol beers in Europe, including the Trappist beers of Belgium and The Netherlands, the bock beers of Germany and Austria, and the barley wines of the United Kingdom. Unlike American malt liquors and super-strength lagers, these are beers known for a full body, a complex aroma, and higher prices.
There was a short lived fashion for brewing American style malt liquors in Britain in the late 70s and early 80s. Some of these were genuine American brands brewed under license, notably Colt 45, and some were simply inspired by the style. They generally contained 5% ABV. These beers were heavily marketed for a few years but failed to make a lasting impact and are no longer produced.
- Dogfish Head – Liquor de Malt Dogfish Head Brewery. Accessed on March 27, 2008.
- Breaking Out the Forty Beer Advocate.com. March 21, 2001. Accessed on December 16, 2007.
- John Saunders (1847). The People's Journal. People's Journal. p. 252. Retrieved 23 July 2011.
- Clix Patent Filing United States Patent and Trademark Office. Accessed December 20, 2007.
- A Story without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor A History of Malt Liquor. April 30, 2005. Accessed on April 15, 2012.
- Malt Liquor Favored By Homeless, Unemployed Drinkers
- Chuck D: This One's Not For You, Entertainment Weekly, Sept. 27, 1994.
- Florida Statutes, Title XXXIV, Chapter 563; see item (6)
- German Beer Institute: The German Beer Portal for North America. 2006. Accessed on Oct. 25, 2012.