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The Sleazy and Spectacular History of Malt Liquor

Don Vultaggio says he was like Captain Kirk, boldly going where no other had gone before. With a VW van, a partner, and enough guts to set foot in the roughest parts of late-’70s Brooklyn, Vultaggio began delivering malt liquor. This was a dangerous job — so dangerous, in fact, that the breweries’ own truck drivers refused to do it, which is the opening Vultaggio wanted to exploit. He braved stickups and shoot-outs. He hauled cheaper product from upstate wholesalers back into the city, because gas was 30 cents a gallon, and the hassle paid well.

In time, one van became a dozen trucks, and then two dozen. One little fly-by-night distribution operation became a $2 billion beverage empire that now makes everything from malt liquor and flavored malt beverages, to beer, to — wait for it — AriZona Iced Tea.

And it all started with malt liquor. To Vultaggio, malt liquor was a good business proposition. Serving the underserved. Getting product to market. In the years that followed, malt liquor came to represent a lot more, to a lot more people, in a hell of a lot more places. Since its creation, malt liquor’s fortunes have been entangled with America’s sorest social bugbears, from race, to class, to poverty, to whether or not capitalism ought to give a shit about any of those things.

Maybe you’re familiar with its baggage. Maybe not. As Kihm Winship (who wrote one of the few good histories of malt liquor) put it, it is “a story without heroes.” But what a story. Thanks to the people who made it, sold it, protested against it, rapped about it, and of course drank it, the history of malt liquor is a spectacular and uniquely American shitshow. And here it is, in all its glory… read more >

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