Liquids: Malternatives

Remember Zima? Of course you do. Way back in 1993, when your stock portfolio was, like, double its current value, nothing was more satisfying after a long day of checking the Nasdaq than hoisting a strangely-devoid-of-explicable-flavor, quasi-citrusy Zima to your lips, taking a swig, and then thinking: This is as good as it gets. Sadly, you were right. Zima, introduced by Coors Brewing Company about a decade ago, was the first of its kind, a malt-based beverage with “flavor” added to make it more … appealing. Like all fads, the “experts” said, Zima would pass into history, just like the wine cooler. Oh, yeah? Think again. Zima is back, and now she has a big, virile brother named Vibe (being marketed to men). They’re just two of the so-called “malternatives” whose sales are growing at rates unfathomable to all those experts.

The question is: Why? Could it be their names? There’s Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Silver, Skyy Blue, Stolichnaya Citrona, Captain Morgan Gold, and Sauza Diablo, to name a few. What is it about these appellations that seems so familiar? They’re not quite as innocuous as, say, Zima or Vibe. No, they’re … branded. They’re named after some of the most popular vodkas, rums, and tequilas on the market today, which means they’re made with vodka, rum, and tequila, right? Well … no. And therein lies the intrigue.

First, a little history. In the mid-’90s, “hard” ciders burst on the scene, but they were so sweet that they simply shamed their dry, delicious British counterparts. Then, about five years ago, a wave of citrusy hard lemonade and fruit-flavored malt brews became the fad du jour, cropping up across the country in the same manner as the then-popular microbrews. Hard lemonades, such as Mike’s, and fruity “coolers,” such as Hooper’s Hooch and Seagram’s Coolers, are still around, though many others have fallen off the shelves to make room for the merger of malt with spirits. How this came about is an interesting concept, born of desperation, really, as spirits giants watched the growing popularity of the fruity malt beverages, and the fact that these malternatives, like beers, can be advertised on television, as opposed to liquor, which cannot. And then Smirnoff Ice was born.

The success of Smirnoff Ice, which in its first year sold about 22 million cases, created a whole new ballgame for malternatives. The concept was brilliant: Attaching a spirits brand name to a malt-based beverage gave spirits companies and brewers a whole new way to market to consumers—including on TV. This spring, another half dozen major brands were introduced, as all the big spirits houses jumped into marriages with brewers. First, Anheuser-Busch teamed up with Bacardi, one of the world’s largest spirits brands, to launch Bacardi Silver. Then Miller Brewing Company followed with Skyy Blue, a collaboration with Skyy Spirits. Diageo, parent company of Guinness Bass Import Company, followed the popularity of Smirnoff Ice with Captain Morgan Gold. Finally, Miller announced a partnership that yielded Stolichnaya Citrona and Sauza Diablo, and another to make Jack Daniel’s Original Hard Cola.

Is this a trend or just another fleeting fad? Darin deMagistris, co-owner of Colingail’s Beer & Wine in Waltham, says he sells plenty of malternatives, the most popular of which is the original, Smirnoff Ice. “Smirnoff sells the most because it’s been around the longest,” says deMagistris, adding: “Whoever spends the most on marketing is how it sells.” According to Beverage Dynamics, a trade magazine that tracks trends in the booze biz, Smirnoff shelled out an estimated $50 million last year to market Smirnoff Ice. This year, Anheuser-Busch is spending an estimated $50 to $60 million on Bacardi Silver, and Miller is dropping an estimated $40 million on Skyy Blue.

Gary Park, owner of Gary’s Discount Liquors in West Roxbury, thinks these latest malternatives are better than their predecessors. “I’ve seen these come and go—first the wine coolers, then the lemon drinks, but I have a good feeling about some of these new ones because the liquor companies have a way now of marketing themselves without having to fight regulators in each and every state,” says Park. “And they’re able to put their names on TV now, too, simply by switching over to malt.” Park makes another good point when he observes it’s only natural for many of us to be drawn to names like Smirnoff, Skyy, Stolichnaya, Bacardi, and Sauza. “People are willing to pay for the brand names, regardless of whether or not the product is what it appears to be,” he says.

And, as I said, therein lies the intrigue. Just because Smirnoff makes it, doesn’t mean it has vodka in it. The same goes for the rest of them. At the end of the day, each and every one of these malternatives is made with malt-based alcohol, adding up to about 5 percent alcohol by volume. That makes them attractive to those in the cocktail set who want to name-drop a hard-liquor brand without dropping a lot of hard cash. In the end, as always, you get what you pay for.

My idea of an alternative drink—on the rare occasion that I find myself craving a fruity concoction with some kick—is either an Alizé Wild Passion, a blend of natural passion fruit, mango, and pink grapefruit juices combined with French Cognac, or Bacardi’s new Ciclón, a blend combining Bacardi Gold rum spiked with blue agave tequila and a touch of lime. Clocking in at 16 percent and 35 percent alcohol by volume, respectively, both deliver far more flavor with a lot less schmaltz … I mean, malt.