The 1990s were a special time in New York. Teenagers could purchase 40s at certain corner delis, where complex deals were established. My friends would wait while one person (usually me, showing off) went in with two empty backpacks. I never approached the refrigerated cases of booze. Instead, slipping the bags around the counter discreetly, I placed my order verbally—a bunch of “OEs” and a Colt 45 for me (I felt the need to distinguish myself with a trademark, to shun conformity).
I would pay and smoke a cigarette outside with my gang of intimidating slackers, and then return to collect the now-cumbersome backpacks. Not surprisingly, that deli got fined many, many times for selling alcohol to adolescents. But we were never busted, thank goodness—I loved 40s. Like a meat lover’s pizza or the lumberjack breakfast at a diner, it was comforting to settle into something so huge, a time commitment that hardly cost anything, a ritual guaranteed to end with extraordinary wastedness. It certainly wasn’t about the flavor.
Recently, I got to wondering: What did those beloved 40s actually taste like? Is there any difference between them? I rounded up the three brands from my youth, which are still the only ones around: Olde English ($2.50) remains the most ubiquitous, Colt 45 ($2.25) is slightly harder to find, and the even cheaper Saint Ides ($1.99) has to be sought out, especially if you’re in Manhattan.
Technically speaking, malt liquor is beer that has too much alcohol to be called “beer.” The American version also has sugar added to it, but some fancy foreign beers can be labeled “malt liquor” here, if the alcohol content is in the 5 to 9 percent range. The taste test (complete with a blindfold segment) confirmed some generalizations: 40s are watery and never seem really cold, even just out of the fridge. They have very small bubbles, which makes them easy to chug but also contributes a distinct flatness from the beginning. (By the time you get to the bottom, forget it.) They are sweeter and less refreshing than regular beer.
Despite the similarities, it seems there may have been something behind my adolescent preference for Colt 45—it proved to be slightly more beer-like, and a little more refreshing because it has bigger bubbles. Popular Olde English has the smallest bubbles—when poured into a glass, it is 90% head, resembling sea foam. It’s also the sweetest. As my roommate said, “It has the least, like, poison taste,” which is probably why teens love it. St. Ides is still for the unrefined. In my day, that meant the four boys who drank it in an alley near school during free periods (I joined them once and will spare you the details). It tastes, well, the most like poison—bitter, metallic, and garbage-esque.
But none of this is surprising. What really blew my mind was the fact that all the 40s smelled exactly like canned pineapple juice. Seriously.