Star-Bulletin Features

Janet Molina, right, enjoyed a Smirnoff Ice at Ocean Club Saturday. Her friend, Didi Gascon, was awaiting delivery of her next drink, Skyy Blue, another fruity beer substitute. Joining them were Al Pascua, center left, and Randy Balino.


These fruity, see-through "malternatives"
give drinkers a lighter choice

By Jason Genegabus

Learning to tolerate the taste of alcohol was once a right of passage -- getting used to the taste of beer or the harshness of hard liquor takes time and patience.

The introduction of drinks with names such as "Ice," "Silver" and "Blue," however, provided those who wish to imbibe with the option of sweeter beverages with less kick than mixed drinks.

It's easier to understand what these products are through industry terms -- "malternative" or "flavored malt beverage." As long as alcohol content is less than 6 percent by volume, malternative drinks are designated and taxed as beer.

Coors Brewing Co. statistics show malternatives making significant gains in popularity. From 2000 to 2001, their growth surged more than 85 percent. Imported beer experienced only 12 percent growth in the same period.

Those of us old enough to remember (or sneaky enough not to have gotten caught) may recall the debut of a Coors product named Zima as the first time a malternative caught the public's attention. It was clear, it tasted like nothing else available at the time, and it got you tipsy after drinking a few.

It's Skyy in the blue bottles and Ice in the clear ones.

Following an initial surge in popularity, Zima faded from supermarket shelves, much as wine coolers did years before. A few years later, "hard lemonade" malternatives began to arrive in stores.

Now Captain Morgan Gold, Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Silver and Skyy Blue have taken Zima's premise of a sweet-tasting beer and improved on it. In the 21st century, malternative manufacturers hope to capitalize on established brands to make drinkers more comfortable with these new beverages.

"With Smirnoff Ice (when it was introduced in 2001), they stumbled onto something," said Greg Cabanting, director of marketing at Anheuser-Busch Sales of Hawaii. "Contemporary adults are always looking for something new. It's really about what's hip."

In order to make these new malternatives more attractive, breweries partnered with well-established hard-liquor companies. "It gives credibility to the drink," said Cabanting. "It's kind of like a badge."

Joe Hart, a bartender at Kelley O'Neil's in Waikiki, agrees that the names on the bottles play a part in popularity. "It's a hot trend," he said. "People who drink those brands are going to go for it. By putting a hard liquor on (the bottle), they're more accepted ... more familiar to people."

Most people willing to talk about their drinking habits gave two reasons for preferring malternatives. The first and most obvious is taste. Others said that flavored malt beverages provide a lower-alcohol alternative to hard liquor. Two or three Bacardi Silvers wouldn't affect them as much as three shots of something stronger.

Ocean Club bartenders Malia Beter, left, and Rachel Graham shown here on Saturday night, find "malternative" drinks to be popular with customers.

"It's either this or tequila," college student Katie Funai, 21, said while knocking back a Skyy Blue at a local nightspot. Although her tolerance isn't very high to begin with, drinking a malternative allows Funai to have a few more drinks without falling down.

"This tastes better than a beer does," said Funai before taking another sip. "And I can have one, go dance and be ready for another when I get back to the table."

Which makes Pipeline Cafe vice president and general manager Jed Roa very happy. "We sell quite a bit of it," he said of malternatives. "Smirnoff Ice is probably the most popular. ... Having it on special helps."

For some people, finding it "on special" is the only attraction. Keahi Kaawa, 28, said he prefers a cold beer, but will order a Smirnoff Ice, "if it means saving two bucks."

Others understand why malternatives are popular but can't bring themselves to drink a "girlie beer."

"They're too sweet," said bartender Hart. "Gives me a stomachache. I'll take a Bud Light or a Guinness any day."

Kaawa agreed. "I'll drink them," he said of the citrus-flavored malternatives available. "But I'd rather have a beer."

Over the next six to 12 months, beer companies plan to introduce a few more malternatives. Coors is introducing what it calls "Zima's wild cousin," a black-and-red-packaged drink called Vibe.

Miller Brewing Co., which already produces Skyy Blue, has also introduced Stolichnaya Citrona and Sauza Diablo. The company has even partnered with Brown-Forman Corp. to produce Jack Daniel's Original Hard Cola, due this fall.

To Pipeline Cafe's Roa, more choices is a good thing. "A lot of people don't like the taste of beer, so these guys (liquor companies), are just trying to give them what they want," he said. "As long as we keep selling them, they'll keep making them."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin