Malternative Lifestyles

From the outset, this week's Burning Question disturbed us.

In days of yore, adventurers survived perilous tests of will and strength before reaching their destinations. Consider the travails of Xenophon and his 10,000, Beowulf, Ahab, Odysseus or George Clooney--invariably, members of such expeditions suffer some ill, whether brutally slaughtered by monstrous sea creatures or beaten senseless by John Goodman. And our quest involved much additional danger, for it contained all the elements fate assembles to create tragedy: women, alcohol and poetry.

Well, the poetry was perhaps an unnecessary addition to the entire tragic affair: We tried to impress Brooke Robinson and Mary Margaret Hocker, two young women at Bali Bar, with a few well-recited lines, but fate--in the form of five or six martinis--combined to foul our delivery. (We ended up blabbering about children or parenting or some such topic beyond our realm of knowledge). And aside from a few times when we succumbed to temptation and pounded down cocktails, this week's question confined us to the meager alcoholic content of flavored malt beverages.

And that, indeed, disturbed us all.

OK, so the perils faced by the Burning Question crew may not match epic standards. We encountered few real dangers beyond the threat of rejection and lost only one crew member in our quest (not slashed beyond recognition by razor-sharp claws, but called home to deal with a minor plumbing problem). To be fair, however, the heroes of past sagas may have crawled away in pure defeat if antagonists threatened them with a taste of Zima.

These new malt beverages, you see, are little more than clear beers dressed up with brand identification and a bit of artificial flavoring. Distilleries, for the most part, leave production of Skyy Blue, Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Silver and the like to domestic beer companies, lending their name only for marketing purposes. You'll find no trace of vodka or rum or any such spirit in one of these so-called "malternatives." Recently, in fact, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms required companies to remove from labels any suggestion that flavored malts contain distilled spirits.

Instead of pumping money into the product, the breweries dumped heaps of cash into vast advertising campaigns designed to popularize the beverages. Smirnoff Ice, riding a $50 million advertising campaign, dispensed more than 22 million cases on an unwary public. Anheuser-Busch is in the midst of a $50-$60 million launch for Bacardi Silver. Likewise Miller: $40 million for Skyy Blue. Their advertisements inform us that women will either eyeball, hang with or perform PG-rated sex acts on a man who orders a bottle of any brand.

So this week's epic Burning Question steps resolutely into a maelstrom of marketing, trendiness and image. Will drinking a flavored malt beverage really make us more appealing to women?

Let's put it this way: no, no, no, no, no, no and no.

It seems oddly out of character for Americans to forsake the message imbedded in multimillion-dollar media blitzes. After all, we bought into the "two months' salary" idea concocted by the diamond industry, the "new economy" pitch of dot-coms and the integrity of President Bush. Yet something went awry in this case.

Men over the age of 21 rarely touch the stuff, and those who try Zima or Captain Morgan's Gold or any other brand regret it deeply and for the rest of their lives.

"I rank them right up there with prostate exams," says Dallas drinking man Mike Cantrell.

Industry figures, however, suggest dramatic growth. The market category expanded by 26 percent last year, and Morgan Stanley Forecasting expects sales to double in 2002, compared with a paltry 1 percent growth rate for domestic beers. Of course, advertising drives some curiosity purchases from consumers, accounting for part of this spurt. Inexperienced "entry-level" drinkers (a euphemism for "underage") also help spark the buying trend.

"We sell most of it to women who don't want to drink, but their friends are drinking so they don't want not to drink," explains Heather Wood, bartender at Champps in Las Colinas, sounding somewhat like Yogi Berra on an off night.

Although women apparently drink flavored malts in public, they tend to dismiss men--again, those over 21--who approach them with an alco-pop in hand. Indeed, when we asked female bar patrons what they would think if we sidled up with amorous intentions and a Smirnoff Ice or Mike's Hard Lemonade, the respondents were none too kind. A pleasant woman named Izabela said, "I don't want to stereotype or anything, but I'd think you're a wuss." Rachel Wise was a bit more blunt: "I'd be like, 'You fucking pussy.'" Amparo de la Garza just scoffed at us. "It's a girl's drink," she finally said. "If you drink that stuff, we will think you're gay," warned Shelly Gabriel, her comment backed by Gracie G., who redirected our pass with, "My friend Jeff would probably be really glad to meet you."

Yes, we did check for factors that may have tainted the results. It was a good hair day, we dressed sharply and we pocketed an extra pair of socks. We even copied manners from Kate & Leopold and trotted out poetry on that one disastrous occasion. Yet Jamie, sitting at The Londoner, informed us quite firmly, "There's not a guy anywhere who has a Zima or any one of those drinks in his hand that I'd even think of having sex with."

This being an epic and tragic tale--you know, women, poetry, death-defying feats of plumbing, etc.--we must conclude with some bit of hard-earned wisdom. Each generation gains confidence with alcohol through entry-level drinks: near beer, Boone's Farm, wine coolers and now flavored malt beverages. The breweries and distilleries know this fad will pass, too, but they expect a payoff in brand loyalty.

Considering, however, the response to this week's Burning Question, perhaps the brands require some tweaking.

Maybe Mike's Flaccid Lemonade would be a more appropriate product description.


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