Malt liquor has several definitions. It can be used to describe beers that are higher in alcohol content than a state regulation for beer allows, or it can refer to beer that has added sugar, corn, or other substances that increase their total alcohol content. Some people use the term disparagingly to mean an inferior beer, since it is often sold in much larger containers than is traditional beer.
From a legal standpoint, some places require beer to contain only a certain percentage of alcohol. To be officially called beer, the alcohol level normally rests at about 5%. Anything exceeding this limit may be called ale, lager or malt liquor. Such beverages may have as high or higher than 12% total alcohol.
However, the number of brewers who now manufacture “beers” with at least a 12% alcohol content is on the rise. Small breweries on the West Coast of the US are particularly likely to have several brews with at least 12% alcohol content. Thus on the West Coast, there may be no distinction made, and beers with higher alcohol content may not be referred to by this name.
Beers that have increased alcohol content through adding extra sugar or corn are usually relatively sweet. Malt liquor lacks the bitter taste one finds in some beers because it has been sweetened and because it uses only a tiny amount of hops as compared to other beers.
Early brands emerged in the 1950s in the US, and included Country Club, and Colt 45. Malt liquor is frequently sold in a much larger bottle or container than traditional beer, and it is usually less expensive. It is often sold in 40 ounce (1.18 liters) bottles; traditionally, most beers are sold in 12 ounce (0.35 l) bottles or cans. A slang term for the drink is "the forties," because of the bottle size.
Pabst now owns Country Club beer and still manufactures it under the same name, although it is not a popular brand. Today’s most popular brands include Hurricane, Steel Reserve, and Panther. Many feel malt liquor is equivalent to certain poorly made wines that would have been drunk straight from the bottle and often consumed by those who wish to get drunk quickly.