Zima and The Early 2000s Flood of Malt Beverages


Another weekend is upon us, summer weather’s arrived and Sunday is Father’s Day. All forecasts call for sunny skies with a 100 percent chance of Cold One Showers!

There’s never been a better time for beer connoisseurs than 2017. Those seeking a frosty beverage this or any weekend have a seemingly endless selection of brews thanks to the current craft beer renaissance.

While perusing the refrigerated shelves of your local grocery store or BevMo, however, you might notice something peculiar among the lagers and IPAs: Earlier this year, MillerCoors announced the re-release of Zima.

For those unfamiliar with Zima, the carbonated malt liquor was at the forefront of its own beverage revolution. Allow me to take you back to the summer of 2002…

Pop-punk was all the rage in music, the first installment in a new Spider-Man film series — now in its third incarnation — dominated box offices, and liquor store fridges were stocked with sugary drinks. I was home from my first year of college and the proud owner of a fake ID that stated I was a 5-foot-10, 29-year-old from Sacramento. In actuality, I was a 6-foot-4 19-year-old, with the face of a high-school sophomore.

Nevertheless, less reputable mini-marts accepted my ID without hassle. I was an integral cog for a corps of friends, home from various colleges and seeking Natty Ice or King Cobras at the end of a week from our various part-time jobs.

One member of my summertime crew, however, didn’t have a taste for beer. He preferred the bottled, malt beverages that were ubiquitous in the early 2000s, of which Zima was the originator.

Zima has the consistency and look of Sprite, and a similarly overly sweet taste. It’s more associated now with the mid-1990s than the turn of the millennium, the result of an aggressive marketing campaign in the late 20th century.

Just look at this collection of Gen X stereotypes and try not to get “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” stuck in your head.

Since Zima was well-entrenched in the marketplace by 2002, it was the leader, but stores were awash in similar beverages. Most disappeared shortly after their inception, but I have distinct memories of just about every one.

Smirnoff Ice was the second-most prominent to Zima, and until Zima’s reproduction this year, endured as the lone, malt-beverage holdover. I credit Smirnoff Ice’s long life almost exclusively to bros ironically serving it to one another as part of a game called, “Icing.”

Icing involves hiding a Smirnoff Ice somewhere a friend will find it, then declaring, “You’ve been Iced!” once found, at which time the victim must take a knee and chug the disgustingly sweet beverage. Fun fact: Dustin “Screech Powers” Diamond threatened to murder someone for refusing to participate.

Other hard-alcohol giants attempted to infiltrate this once-lucrative market. Bacardi produced its answer, Silver. Skyy Vodka produced “Skyy Blue,” a drink for which my freshman-year girlfriend had an affinity. My first-ever viewing of Pulp Fiction was accompanied with pizza and this sugary drink.

There was DNA, an “Alcoholic Spring Water,” which I guess was more palatable marketing slogan than “Bigfoot’s Hangover Urine.”

Captain Morgan’s offering, Captain Morgan Gold, was the most unique. It was probably the most unnecessary, considering Captain Morgan also produced the sweetly Parrot Bay. But while others followed Zima’s look and taste, Captain Morgan Gold eschewed a saccharine flavor for something more comparable to maple syrup blended with rum.

It wasn’t good. None of them were good. Alas, they had a market — which brings us back to the summer of 2002.

While my fake ID fulfilled its need at a seedy gas station on the edge of town, our group needed more ahead of a weekend camping trip before summer’s end. Only one of us had an older brother in town who could legally acquire the supplies needed, however. It was the guy who loved malt beverages.

In a staggeringly rookie move, he sent his brother to Safeway with a shopping list long on malt drinks, and devoid of beer. So there we were, a group of 19-year-old dudes in the woods of northern Arizona with coolers of Smirnoff Ice, Captain Morgan Gold, Skyy Blue and Zima.

After a night spent grilling steaks and sausages on a hibachi, washing them down with bottles of sugar-infused drinks, I woke up with what remains the single-worst physical sensation of my life. The Geneva Convention presumably has stipulations preventing governments from weaponizing the head-and-stomach pains I felt that morning.

The sugar from those hellspawn drinks seemingly burned a hole through my chest. The tremors rumbling through my head can only be described as what fracking would feel like, if performed on a human being. Never again would one of those “alcopops” ever cross my lips.

And they haven’t. Consider this a warning to those of you shopping for a drink on this beautiful, early-summer weekend.