Secrets of the Harlem Car Bomb!

malt liquors

SF Fans eat junk food and worship beer. What could be better than to combine the two into one?

The Harlem car bomb is one of those rare things in my life: it's a new fad, and I managed to stumble across it in its infancy (look it up on the web: there are comparatively few references to it). I must thank The Riverfront Times "Keep It Down!"  article series for introducing me to it. It's part drink, part snack, and completely inane. Construction couldn't be simpler: pour some malt liquor into a glass. Pop a cold chicken hot wing into the glass. Drink the malt liquor, and upend the glass until the wing falls in your mouth: then eat the wing. The sauce on the wing kills the foam on the malt liquor, and flavors it. The malt liquor soaks into the wing.

As a stand alone cocktail, the Harlem car bomb is OK at best. As an excuse to pour back some malt liquor and down some chicken wings, it's ideal. But what malt liquor is the best? There's the rub.

Like a lot of other beer snobs, I assumed that malt liquor was a low grade alcohol that was usually drunk by inner city residents who would buy it in 40 ounce bottles and drink it with the paper bag still wrapped around the bottle. Malt liquor is basically a high alcohol beer, "high alcohol" in this case meaning anything substantially above the standard for beer, 5%. What every brewer does is up the alcohol content by adding malted corn (and sometimes sugar) to the mix. They could just as easily add more barley malt and keep the flavor, but corn/sugar is cheaper than malted barley.

I realized with a start one day that I was very familiar with malt liquor, even though I thought I had never tasted it. And that requires an explanation.

Many years ago, my father made home brew. This stuff was the standard malt extract and sugar brew up from the 1970s. My dad used dried yeast, Blue Ribbon Malt Extract (and later dry malt extract and cake hops) and sugar. Lots of sugar. Back then, the idea was that the more alcohol home brew had, the better it was. My dad's friends would taste the brews he made and comment about "that wine taste," which came from using sugar. My dad never did care much for their assessments; in fact, he never drank the beer he made. My mother drank almost all of it, and since she didn't complain about the high alcohol content, my dad kept the formula the same. My dad made malt liquor, and I didn't even realize it until recently.

I was quite popular in high school. Occasionally I would give quarts of home brew to friends of mine. Mind you, the stuff was more like apple cider than beer in flavor. The kids didn't care: it had alcohol in it, and that was good enough for them. Picture a bunch of high school punks with one quart of low quality home made malt liquor. They must have thought they were the greatest kids in the world.

When my father died, I inherited the family brewing chores. I started attending home brewing club meetings. The old recipes went out: no longer would I mix sugar in with my malt. And toward the last, I stopped buying malt extract, instead favoring the idea of using whole grains.

Yes, I was brewing Real Beer. But you know, I kind of miss those old days, when brewing was a lot simpler.

One question is where to get malt liquor. This is more difficult than I first imagined. I'd assumed that you could get all you wanted at local quick shops, small liquor stores, or gas stations (in short, any places Slim Jims were sold). Sadly enough, that turned out not to be true. One local location supplied just about every type of malt liquor for this article: Shop 'n Save. Perhaps the folks at Shop 'n Save are more open to the discriminating malt liquor drinker.

I did have one good chuckle when shopping for malt liquor. One liquor store must have been very aware that its clientele hung outside the place and drank it on site. "Coldest Beer in Town!" the sign outside the store says. Now, if you're buying a can of beer to take it home and drink it, you won't really care how cold it is. But if you want to pour it down right away, then coldness is a real consideration.

Below are some of the malt liquors I have tried while slamming back some Harlem car bombs. I decided on 20 different types, simply because 20 is a good, round number. All of them were purchased in single 24 ounce cans. Four 6 ounce glasses were poured, and four wing sections were consumed per can. I also tried a mouth full of malt liquor before popping a wing in the glass to evaluate the flavor.

A word must be said about what defines malt liquor. I started out by assuming that malt liquor would be easy to define: it would be labeled as such on the cans. That isn't always true. There are some malt liquors that are just labeled as lager, or high gravity. Going by alcohol content is perhaps a good way of defining malt liquors. From what I have seen, anything substantially above 5% is a malt liquor (most standard beers clock out at 5%); which also includes a lot of ice beers. I see the 5.9% alcohol content in ice beers so often that I must assume that it is used to define the highest alcohol content an ice beer can have.

American ice beers deserve their own mention. Ice beers are made in the following way: beer is chilled until ice crystals start to form. The alcohol stays liquid. The ice is drawn off, and the resultant beer has a slightly higher alcohol content. This is essentially a form of distillation.

I honestly don't understand the point of ice beers. If you want the higher alcohol, just add more malted barley or corn. The process of freezing and drawing off the ice is more of a gimmick than it is a legitimate brewing method.

What is truly amusing is that some ice beers are no different from regular beer. That is, the brewer chills the beer until ice crystals form, and then doesn't filter the ice out. Those so-called ice beers, which have no more alcohol than regular beer, are not reviewed here. Yes, I pop chicken wings into glasses of malt liquor: but I have standards.

One beer type. India Pale Ale, clocks out at about 5.93% to 6.5% alcohol (various brands), which should define it as a malt liquor. However, I won't list it, because it doesn't come in a standard malt liquor container: the 24 ounce can. Likewise, some fine high gravity Belgian beers won't be listed here.

Budweiser makes a high gravity beer in a glass bottle with a Grolsch style flip top. The stuff retails for around $5.00 or so for a bottle. While the beer would definitely qualify as a malt liquor, it again does not meet one criteria: it doesn't come in a 24 ounce can. And besides: malt liquor is, among other things, cheap. I'm not about to blow $5.00 to pop some wings in beer.

It must be added that all of these malt liquors/high gravity beers worked well with the chicken wings. But it is also realized that some people might want to try them without the wings: thus the reviews on the flavor of the brews. To me, malt liquor without chicken wings (or at least pork rinds) is an abomination. Don't be a rabid nonconformist: pair your malt liquor with the appropriate accompaniment, whether it is chicken wings, turkey wings, or pork rinds.

The malt liquor delivery system deserves a mention. Usually malt liquor is sold in 40 ounce clear glass twist top bottles. In my area, there's a law that such bottles can't be sold cold (though I did find one exception). No one wants to buy a warm bottle of malt liquor, so it's sold here in cans, usually single 24 ounce cans.

The old beer drinkers' debate about glass vs. cans has a different cast with malt liquor. Most regular beer is in dark bottles. This is to keep light out of the beer. When beer is exposed to too much light, it becomes what they call skunky: it gets an awful, intense smell. Clear malt liquor bottles mean that the malt liquor will turn skunky if exposed to enough light. Canned malt liquor will never get skunky.

I remember buying a 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor (King Cobra). The dialogue at the liquor store went like this:

CLERK: You want a bag for that?

ME: Of course. It's malt liquor.

CLERK: Yup. You got to drink it with the bag on the bottle.

I resisted the temptation to sit on the curb outside the store and drink the malt liquor down.

Malt liquor drinkers are not viewed with respect. You'll never see a malt liquor fest, or see malt liquor on tap. But maybe that's its strength: it is what it is. If you feel like drinking it with a bag on the bottle, go ahead. If you want to drop chicken wings in it, go ahead. There is a playfulness about malt liquor that the beer and wine snobs just don't have: or understand.
Part of the way through writing this, I wanted to give up.  The sheer sameness of some of these brews made the whole project seem more like work than fun.  But I persevered.

Since this article was written, some companies have started putting malt liquor in plastic bottles.  Yes, that's right: plastic bottles.  Just when I thought malt liquor couldn't sink any lower, this comes along.

And Now, Onto the Malt Liquors:

211 STEEL RESERVE (8.1% alcohol)
Strong alcohol taste, a slight bitterness, but apparently not from hops. In other words, an all too typical high gravity malt liquor.

BUD ICE (5.5% alcohol)
"When you say Bud, you've said it all," the TV jingle goes. This among all of the brews has a recognizable flavor. It hits you square in the tongue. The problem is that the flavor is that of cardboard. Mind you, it has the taste of a very high quality cardboard. None of that cheap Chinese made corrugated stuff: it tastes like good old American cardboard.

I find the references to beechwood aging in Budweiser ads to be particularly funny. What immediately comes to mind with that? I'm sure most people figure that Budweiser is made in solid beechwood casks, which flavors the beer. Well, not quite.

The beechwood aging consists of beechwood chunks which are placed into stainless steel tanks along with the unfinished beer. The beechwood adds nothing to flavor. Instead, what happens is that yeast from the beer sticks to the beechwood chunks. In other words, it's a method of clarifying the beer. When the beer is clear enough, it is siphoned off of the wood chunks. Then, the chunks are washed, cleaned, dried, and reused for the next batch of beer.

"There's only one Budweiser beer," the famous Bud song goes. OK, if that's so, then what about Bud Ice, Bud Dry, Bud Light, Budweiser Select, Budweiser with Clamato...

BUSCH ICE (5.9% alcohol)
 As reported in the book "Under the Influence": Adolphus Busch, founder of Anheuser-Busch, had someone over for dinner. He asked the person what they wanted to drink. The guy wanted to be polite. "Budweiser," he said. "Ach, dat schlop!" Adolphus replied.

Lord alone knows what Adolphus would have thought of Busch beer (formerly Busch Bavarian). Busch was created as a low price, low quality beer designed to compete with other low end beers like Pabst and Miller. As an aside, the book "Under the Influence" dismissed Busch Bavarian as a failure. What??? I wish all of my failures did as well!

I popped the can open. Sigh. Yet another indistinct brew, bland, inoffensive, forgettable.

You know, it's fashionable to attack the folks at Anheuser-Busch for the blandness of their products. At the same time, it must be noted that beers that are light in flavor and body have to be 100% sound: any off flavors and so on would be readily apparent. Technically, Anheuser-Busch products are excellent. Now if they could just do something about body and flavor.

CAMO BLACK ICE (10.5% alcohol)
"Ice Brewed" the label warned me. Oh geez. Finally, an ice beer with some real kick to it. A strong flavor of alcohol, along with the standard malt liquor chemical bitterness. There I was, pouring this into a glass, popping wings in, noting the oil slick on top of the beer.  What can you say, what can you do, after getting so loaded on a can of malt liquor that all you can do is sleep it off?

 Kind of a harsh, wine-like taste. Not very beer like at all. A very pleasant buzz. Put me to sleep. You can definitely tell that they used dextrose in making this.

billy dee williams colt 45

COLT 45 MALT LIQUOR (6.1% alcohol)
 This tasted like your standard American bland lager; nothing special. This produced a decent buzz.

Before he became Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee Williams was the spokesman for Colt 45. "Works every time," Billy would say, though he never did define in what way Colt 45 worked.

Personally, I liked the late 1960s ads for this better: my favorite being this guy on a boat, pouring himself a Colt 45 while a shark was biting out chunks of the boat. The guy would just keep on drinking, occasionally casting a disinterested glimpse at the shark. Now that's class!

COLT 45 DOUBLE MALT (5.61% alcohol)
Not bad! Smooth, good flavor. A mild buzz, certainly not enough to put me to sleep. WTF? This has less alcohol than standard Colt 45!

EVIL EYE MALT LIQUOR (10% alcohol): As good an alcohol delivery system as they come. Oh, flavor? Mostly you can taste the alcohol in this. That's about it.

This is another malt liquor that put me to sleep. You know, it started to get a bit tedious after a while: drink a high gravity malt liquor, then sleep it off. It's a bit different from the images you see on those old malt liquor commercials.

FOSTER'S LAGER (5.25% alcohol)
 Yes, it's imported beer. Well, it's claimed to be, anyway. Yes, it just barely achieves the over 5% alcohol rule. But on the plus side, it's relatively cheap, as all malt liquors should be, and it comes in a big can. And, praise be, I taste *hops* of all things. That should be worth something. Not at all a bad brew.

"Foster's. Australian for beer," the commercials tell us. Proudly made by the aptly named Oil Can Breweries, which is located in the wonderful Australian states of Georgia and Texas. I wonder if Oil Can Harry from the old Mighty Mouse cartoons has something to do with this?

FOSTER'S PREMIUM ALE (5.5% alcohol)
 "Special Bitter" the label says. "Ale with carmel (sic) color added." Now that's class: having a typo right on a label. The hops and the alcohol fight with each other for flavor supremacy in this. The hops win in the end.

What the heck is the deal with the artificial coloring? Adding color to beer is a simple thing: just add some crystal malt, which will also add flavor. Just tipping in some dye smacks more of making a mixed drink than of making beer.

 Another so so entry from Anheuser-Busch. But I suspect that no one drinks malt liquor for flavor, do they? The flavor of alcohol predominates. Normally a high alcohol beer like this will put me to sleep. This made me more alert. After downing the last wing, I plopped my ass in front of the TV set and watched "Dawn of the Dead." That is one of the best comedies I have ever seen. I just about busted a gut watching it. Or at least it seemed funny to me under the influence, as it were.

ICEHOUSE (5.5% alcohol)
 Bland American lager. By Miller, masquerading as the Plank Road Brewery. I wonder if anyone is fooled by that? Not at all distinctive. Low alcohol content for an ice beer.

William Poundstone, in his book "Big Secrets," talked about how perfume makers design scents. They make perfumes that don't smell like anything recognizable. The theory being that if you can't identify a smell, then you can't come up with a reason to object to it.
II do have to wonder if the above applies to beer: by making the flavor as indistinct as possible, maybe people won't find a reason to object to any particular beer.

KEYSTONE ICE (5.9% alcohol)
This is made by Coors. I remember reading a joke a brewer made about Coors. He filled a glass full of tap water. "Care to try the new Coors light?" he asked. This is every bit as bland as Coors. Advertised as "Never bitter beer." That is true: it has almost no flavor at all.

king cobra ad

KING COBRA (6% alcohol)
 This is truly excellent stuff: smooth, with a good, dense head. A mild buzz, and it didn't put me to sleep. And what do I detect? Praise be, I smell hops! Almost unheard of in a malt liquor.

I love the old commercials for this brand: lots of cool black people who really have their act />
This is one malt liquor that sparks a lot of contention. From the reviews I have seen (and from my own experiences), people who stick with malt liquor only don't like this stuff. People that like a wide variety of beers like it.

MICKEY'S (Alcohol: 5.6%)
 Almost flavorless. No worries about it not going down smooth. Very low in alcohol, compared to other malt liquors. No real buzz at all. Nice hornet on the label. With its low for a malt liquor alcohol content, I should imagine that the hornet's stinger is a very short one indeed.

MILWAUKEE'S BEST ICE (5.9% alcohol)
 Another entry from the Miller Brewing Company. I am reminded of a line from the film "Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe": "Why is drinking American beer like making love in a canoe? Because it's f***in' close to water." Nice, inoffensive, middle of the road flavor, designed to appeal to as many people as possible.

I suspect that there is some sort of contest among brewers in the US. "Hey, let's see how few hops we can put in our beer and still technically call it beer!"

NATURAL ICE (5.9% alcohol)
 Typical Busch style American bland. Nothing to distinguish this at all. It's at this point that I started to wonder about the point of doing this article. 
OLDE ENGLISH 800 (5.9% alcohol)
The favorite malt liquor of the rappers before St. Ide's paid them for their endorsements. Good head, which can't stand up to the fat in the chicken wings. A decent flavored malt liquor. The rappers could do a lot worse.

This can't be real.  At least I hope it isn't.  A friend gave this to me recently.  It's got a good kick, and plenty of hops.  But who'd think that Bohemian brewers would make a malt liquor?  Not me, that's for sure!

ST. IDE'S (8.2% alcohol)
 Ah, the crooked I, favorite malt liquor of the rappers. Mind you, it's their favorite because St. Ides pays them to endorse it. This is seriously dangerous stuff. It's bitter, but I don't think it's a bitterness brought on by hops. It's more of a chemical bitterness. With the first swallow, I could tell I was swallowing some potent stuff. This put me to sleep.

About midway through the can, I started to wonder about the safety issue. I mean, my health is tentative at best. Drinking stuff like this could do a number on my liver and my kidneys. Now I know why some alarmists refer to malt liquor as "liquid crack."

II will say this much: the high alcohol content really helped to give the chicken wings a good flavor.

SCHLITZ MALT LIQUOR (5.9% alcohol)
 The kids today have an expression for my reaction to this. That expression is "Meh." This is OK. Nothing at all special. Middle of the road as far as flavor. A mild buzz.

The old Schlitz Malt Liquor ad went like this:
Watch out for the bull
Watch out for that Schlitz Malt Liquor bull
Nobody makes malt liquor like Schlitz, nobody
Nobody makes malt liquor like Schlitz

First off, what is it we're supposed to watch out for--perhaps the barely above beer level alcohol content?

Secondly, they claim that no one makes malt liquor like they do. Are they bragging, or is that an apology?

Some may ask: what is the point of all of this? I mean, research on malt liquor (not to mention Harlem car bombs) is important work. But at the same time about all I've discovered is that there are a lot of undistinguished malt liquors out there: and that all ice beers, without exception, are mediocre. But still I persevere. No one ever said that science was easy.

One conclusion I have made: drinking isn't much fun when you have to do it. I haven't touched any alcohol since I finished the last can of malt liquor for this article. So, in a way, this has all put forth a positive />
One bit of an honorable mention for this article: on a lark, I bought a can of Chelada: Budweiser and Clamato. That's exactly what it sounds like: Budweiser mixed with Clamato (clam juice and tomato juice). Since the alcohol content is 5% on this, it stands to reason that they used malt liquor to make it (they couldn't add clamato juice to an already 5% beer and still have it come out at 5% alcohol).

Budweiser and Clamato is good. Hell, it's great stuff: this is a perfect case of the sum total being greater than its parts. I don't like Budweiser. It's too bland for my tastes. However, this stuff actually has a decent flavor to it. Too bad it doesn't have enough alcohol for Harlem car bombs. It would be a good combination, but it wouldn't be a true Harlem car bomb.

II won't even mention the other version of Chelada, Bud Light and Clamato. A lot of light beer is made by simply taking regular beer and adding water to it (the head of Huber brewing has always said that if you want light beer, just buy some of his beer and add sparkling water to it). Why you would want a watered down chelada is beyond me.


The malt liquor tasting is done with for now. I decided to have some wings for dinner. I had the same amount I always had, except that I ate them hot, and I didn't dip them in malt liquor. You know, it's kind of funny: sometimes you realize that people do things for a reason. Apparently the combination of malt liquor and hot wings produces a chemical reaction. Or should I say, prevents a chemical reaction. Malt liquor and chicken wings? No problems. Chicken wings alone? Quite a "moving" experience, if you get my drift. Nothing a good dose of Imodium can't handle: but still, my path is clear. Chicken wings and malt liquor go together for a reason.

buffalo wings

And if you want to make your own chicken wings:

The second part of a Harlem Car Bomb is the chicken wing. I make my own, and the recipe is simple:br />
Get some chicken wings. Separate them at the joints. Throw away the tips. Pop the wing pieces in water, and then dredge them in a flour based coating. I like to keep it simple by adding coarse ground black pepper to flour. Put them in a single layer on a greased cookie sheet. Bake them at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Mix the following together:

2 cups hot sauce (get the large quart size bottle at Shop 'n Save)

1 cup French dressing

cup honey

When the wings are cooked, toss them in the hot wing sauce, allow to cool, then serve.

I have tried making hot wings with turkey wings. Preparation is the same as for chicken wings. It can be done: however, the skin on turkey wings is as tough as shoe leather. You need to bake them with the skin pulled off. Luckily enough, pulling off the skin is fairly simple. Then you just pop them in water, and coat them in seasoned flour. Put them in a single layer on a greased cookie sheet. Bake them at 375 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes, turning them over at the mid point. When cool, toss them in wing sauce, and serve.

What is great about turkey wings is their sheer size. The pieces are as large as standard chicken legs and thighs. Pop a couple of those in a full 24 ounce glass of malt liquor and enjoy!

Of course, the question comes up: why not simply buy chicken leg quarters and make them into Harlem car bomb "wings?' Oh ye of little faith. They wouldn't be wings then, would they? And don't even think of using those Tyson boneless "wyngs" in your Harlem car bombs. You just don't do that. Harlem car bombs consist of cold poultry wings coated in wing sauce, dunked into malt liquor. Anything else is just a poor imitation.


The RFT article that inspired this page

History of malt liquor