An unappealing name for what many consider an unappealing product: Malternatives -- also called nonbeers -- are sweet-tasting alcoholic beverages made from malt, targeted specifically at the people who don't enjoy the taste of beer. Cheap, fake vodka with fruit flavoring, essentially. Made to be easy on the palate, malternatives often are aimed at the women's market.

Drinking connoisseurs find malternatives annoying, and rightfully so. But these drinks are steadily gaining market share. The first vodka malternative was a hit -- an enormous hit -- and going into 2002, the copycats are lining up.

Zima (1993) was probably the first clear-colored, sweet-tasting malt beverage that could be called a malternative, but the real craze started early in 2001 with the launch of Smirnoff Ice. Made of malt, Smirnoff Ice was flavored like lemonade vodka, making it "the girliest of all girlie drinks" according to noder ink- in his Smirnoff writeup. But Smirnoff Ice was an immense hit worldwide, to the point that distributers often couldn't keep store shelves full. By the end of 2001, Smirnoff Ice was outselling other "high-end" malt drinks, namely six-packs of Heineken and Corona.

Naturally, success brought competition. In the fall of 2001, Anheuser-Busch Cos. struck an alliance with Bacardi Ltd. to market Bacardi Silver, a low-alcohol, malt-based drink. Anheuser-Busch rival Miller Brewing Company countered in December 2001 by teaming up with Skyy Spirits LLC -- makers of Skyy Vodka -- to develop a vodka-lemon-flavored drink called Skyy Blue.

Bacardi Silver is expected to hit store shelves in February 2002, and the Skyy product, complete with the trademark cobalt blue bottle, should be out by March 2002.

So, what's the attraction to these drinks? 1) Citrus flavor that's pleasant to casual drinkers (hence the "girlie drink" comment); 2) Less alcohol than vodka, at only about 10 proof; and 3) Price. A six-pack of Smirnoff Ice runs $7, just a bit more than most beer but less than a quality brand of vodka.

But don't fret, vodka snobs, there's a chance that this fad will die out, just like so many others. Any time malternatives get your blood pressure up, just click your heels three times and repeat these words: wine cooler.

"Malternatives" also has been used to describe the variety of fruit-flavored beers on the market, but we'll leave that scourge to another discussion.

Sources: -- Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2002 -- Massachusetts Beverage Business: http://www.beveragebusiness.com/art-arch/06estesb.html -- Leigh Valley EDC: http://www.lehighvalley.org/newsreleases/nws-rels111901.html -- Brand News: http://www.brandera.com/digests/01/03/01/index-m.html

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