Behold the Forty

A paean to the big bad bottle

"In 2002, when 'Pass the Courvoisier' came out, our brand spiked 30 percent," Karraker reports from his office in Westport, Connecticut. "Cognac has been a popular drink of African Americans since the 1940s, but we've really seen an increase in consumption since African Americans have had an outlet to discuss what's important to them -- and that's hip-hop music.

"Gangsta rappers weren't rapping about the things they aspire to have; they were rapping about the realities of the streets," Karraker continues. "Hip-hop music is more inspirational now than it was then. Look at the Cadillac Escalade, it's a perfect example."

Peretha Lewis, who along with her sister Vivian co-owns the East Coast Lounge on North Broadway in St. Louis, offers half-pint "setups" of Cognac and soda to her patrons for $11. "It's picked way up from what it used to be," says Lewis, dating the turnaround to about 1998. "We sell all kinds of Cognac, but it's mostly been Hennessy."

Comedian Robin Thompson believes the hyperbolic 
demonization of Forties and malt liquor "did the crack 
epidemic a disservice."
Jennifer Silverberg
Comedian Robin Thompson believes the hyperbolic demonization of Forties and malt liquor "did the crack epidemic a disservice."
The face of post-civil rights Colt .45: Redd Foxx
The face of post-civil rights Colt .45: Redd Foxx

St. Louis liquor czar Bob Kraiberg has not yet detected any significant rise in the level of broken Cognac bottles on the city's streets. Nor have the likes of Doctor Fagget denounced Courvoisier, whose alcohol content is 40 percent -- 80 proof -- as "meth in a tumbler."

Then there's the cost-value calculus: Should working-class warriors shell out their hard-earned bucks for a yacht-club cocktail while going into arrears on last month's gas bill?

"I have my doubts about Cognac, because the psychic rewards from going high-end actually return illusory benefits," opines George Hacker, head of the alcohol policy project at Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Its popularity has to do with status, but it's not like buying a house. I don't think it has any real return for any population -- it's just potentially being hooked on a high-dollar drug."


Malt liquor was born because it had to be. The so-called Greatest Generation would have parched without it.

"It was a product of rationing during World War II," imparts Dennis "Beer Hall of Fame" Buettner. "They had a shortage of malt, so they decided they could do that with corn. And they kept making it."

According to beer historian Winship's reportage, Clix Malt Liquor was the first of its kind, in 1937, followed five years later by Sparkling Stite by Gluek. The latter's peculiar moniker touches on the tone of early malt pushers, who took their corn-based brew on a Champagne campaign that would make 50 Cent proud.

"It is a style that was originally made to be lighter," chimes in All About Beer magazine's Julie Bradford. "It was designed to appeal to the Champagne crowd. Malt liquor is simply a lager-style beer elevated to greater alcohol levels through brewing techniques that wring the last bit of alcohol out of the available sugar. It's just not very nice-tasting.

"Malt liquor has a rough-and-ready image now," Bradford continues. "But it takes a lot to put that stuff down."

The advent of Colt .45 showed brewers' willingness to use the product's gritty profile to their advantage. Colt, after all, is named after a lethal weapon and features as its logo a feral stallion that looks primed to break down the barn. Schlitz countered with its own logo, a bull, only to be succeeded by brands named after dragons, cobras, canines, lions, tigers and bears. (Oh my!)

"[It was] Noah's Ark gone bad, a wild kingdom in the cooler," Winship writes. "The allusions to potency were unleashed and unbridled."

Until that point, the face of post-civil rights Colt .45 was St. Louisan Redd Foxx, who gave the brew a crack-a-cold-one-on-your-dusty-porch charm. But in 1986 super-suave film icon Billy Dee Williams signed on as Colt .45's spokesman, announcing to television audiences that Colt .45 "works every time" -- typically speaking into the camera as some tall drink of hot cocoa attempted to rip off his blazer and chomp on his chest hair.

Wilt Chamberlain, the seven-foot basketball star who once scored 100 points in a single game and claimed to have notched 300 times that total in the bedroom, was subsequently recruited to promote Falstaff's Haffenreffer Private Stock malt liquor. "Nobody does it bigger," Wilt the Stilt bragged of his brand. Midnight Dragon took the sexual innuendo up yet another notch with a poster featuring a woman, a straw, some beer and the caption: "I could suck on this all night."

The promiscuous marketing campaign didn't fade until around the time malt liquor did, in the mid-'90s. Its apex may have been the 1995 introduction of a brand called Johnny 3 Legs (which requires no elaboration).

By the turn of the century, Forties of malt liquor had been left for dead, the product of sordid craftsmanship and a reputation to match. Antiquated delivery method, antiquated brewing method -- in short, there was no compelling reason for anyone to rescue either Forties or malt liquor.

Which is exactly why Sam Calagione is trying to save them both.

"Whenever something becomes out of fashion, there's always one person out there who tries to turn it around just for sport," says Dennis Buettner. "Sam is that guy."

"Sam is not afraid to stray into volatile territory," seconds Bradford. "Give a good brewer a box of Cheerios, and he can make beer out of it."

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