Behold the Forty

A paean to the big bad bottle

Cuz I needed just a little more kick. Looked like a fish after just one sip.

Let's bell to the store. You broke? What? Dig deep into your Dickies, grab somethin'. And please, stop frontin'.

If you're lookin' for a brand-new beer, grab that S-T-Crooked-Ides. It's ironic -- it's like the chronic bionic.

Collinsville liquor store clerk Chris Zaganelli bags one 
for Pedalin' Ken.
Jennifer Silverberg
Collinsville liquor store clerk Chris Zaganelli bags one for Pedalin' Ken.
"S-T-Crooked-I-D-E-S: Guaranteed to get a big booty undressed": Ice Cube
"S-T-Crooked-I-D-E-S: Guaranteed to get a big booty undressed": Ice Cube

I'm sorry, lemonade never got me buzzed like this. If it feels so good, black, I kinda wish they'd come up with a twelve-pack.

The St. Ides campaign became so popular that radio listeners began calling DJs and requesting the spots.

"When does that happen?" says DJ Drank, a San Francisco spinner who subsequently put together a limited-edition CD of the spots, entitled DJ Drank's Greatest Malt Liquor Hits.

The St. Ides campaign picked up the Forty by its bootstraps: In 1996 -- a year after Eazy-E died from AIDS -- malt liquor sales topped out over 9 million barrels. (Package-specific data is scarce; booze-industry bean counters use malt liquor sales figures as a barometer of the Forty's popularity.)

In classic tragic trajectory, the Forty's overheated popularity set it up for an epic fall.

"It was not to the advantage of the Forty to have this high a profile," theorizes Forty scholar Kihm Winship. "[The ad campaign] raised the Forty's visibility to people immediately outside the culture, at which point the Forty became more of a target: Now there are pastors and community leaders who know about this."

Smelling blood, the anti-Forty forces massed, accusing the liquor industry of peddling poison to people of color and blaming the big, bad bottle for every negative societal ill to be found in the black community at the time. Municipalities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland and Portland took to restricting, if not outright banning, sales of 40-ounce bottles in downtrodden parts of town. In Pennsylvania's march toward 40-ounce prohibition, one Quaker State legislator referred to Forties of malt liquor as "liquid crack."

Health professionals hopped on the hyperbolic bandwagon, with a prominent Washington, D.C.-based physician named Walter Fagget claiming that malt liquor products were "gateway drugs that could pave the way to crack cocaine and other drugs." Then there was Brooklyn-based substance-abuse counselor LeeRoy Jordan, who, according to Winship's research, noted that the medieval symbol for steel that appeared on Steel Reserve's label resembled the digits "211" -- the alphanumeric gang translation of which is "blood killer."

Amid public pressure from high-profile minority leaders and liquor-control agencies, the Federal Communications Commission actually banned the St. Ides spots from the airwaves for three days.

Reflects comedian Robin Thompson: "I've seen people strung out on crack, and those statements do the drug epidemic a disservice. Yes, the beer was targeted at black people. But that's what advertisers do: They sell their product. In America you have choices. You don't have to buy a Forty -- and you shouldn't take away my right to go buy one."

"The people who market that stuff can't feel very good about it," says Julie Bradford, editor-in-chief of Durham, North Carolina-based All About Beer magazine. "But the people protesting can't feel too good either: It's been used as a scapegoat."

These days Ice Cube can be found burnishing his image as the next Bill Cosby in Barbershop sequels and PG-rated kid-flicks. And the closest thing rap has to a "gangsta" is 50 Cent, whose "thug life" consists of posing for spreads in Teen People, working pop tarts like Mariah Carey via a "Champagne campaign" and lending his name to a line of vitamin water dubbed Formula 50. Moreover, according to St. Lunatic Ali, the hottest drink among young adult hip-hop fans right now is pinot grigio.

Champagne, vitamin water and white wine: Eazy-E must be rolling over in his grave.

By 2003 malt liquor had declined to pre-N.W.A levels: about 5 million barrels annually. Bad news for the Forty, which, after surfing to lucrative infamy on 8 Ball's back, has had its cadaver-cold flesh gnawed off by two upstarts: "master cylinder" tall cans and a high-end hard liquor most often associated with ascot-clad WASPs with backyard tennis courts and wood-paneled dens.

"I think it's the 24-ouncers," says liquor-store clerk Chris Zaganelli. "But guys in their T-shirts will come in and buy Cognac pretty regularly. I call it the Cult of Hennessy."

Not long after Tupac Shakur's curious conversion from Digital Underground backup dancer to shrapnel-addled street thug, the 'Pac Man released the 1996 single "Thug Passion," a lyrical tribute to a 32-proof concoction of Hennessy and passionfruit juice called Alizé. Already a reasonably popular drink among blacks, Cognac began to simmer. Soon Snoop Dog and N.W.A alum Dr. Dre dropped their Forties to sing the praises of "Hen Dog."

"High-end Cognac picks up right where malt liquor fell off," confirms Harry Schuhmacher, editor and publisher of Beer Business Daily.

With the 2002 release of Busta Rhymes and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' product-pimping rap anthem "Pass the Courvoisier," Cognac morphed into a cash-fueled craze. As sales skyrocketed, critics wondered aloud whether Allied Domecq, Courvoisier's parent company, had greased Diddy's palms during preproduction. Nah, said Combs, he and Busta were just rapping about what their people were already doing.

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