Uncorking — or rather, screwing off the plastic cap from the plastic bottle — of this beer produces notes of vinegar, malt, hops, and blood. The combination of caramelized corn, fermented thoroughly, and a rich yeasty body rises to the nostrils.
Malt liquor receives the same media treatment as the gangsta culture with which it is associated, which is equal parts fear and awe. It is portrayed as a demonic drink that lures one into evil wickedness, but, sotto voce, that this can be a lot of fun.
The reality is far more mundane: Malt liquors occur when major beer companies double-brew their seconds, or the stuff that wasn’t quite up to snuff for the first round. Every company has seconds and the tendency to upcycle them is not just good business, but avoiding waste. Even wino wine is seconds — “Mad Dog” 20/20 is seconds from the Mogen David factories that make Jewish ceremonial wine. King Cobra is the strengthened seconds of the Annheiser-Busch brewing company, who bring you the infamous Budweiser, which is the Big Mac of beers because it is sweet and consistent.
King Cobra not surprisingly takes a similar path. There is some flat bitterness in the taste, but generally this beer is simply sweet. It has a grainy taste with a slight influence of hops, but mostly like a rice beer, stays within the sugar spectrum with beer overtones. It goes down smoothly despite a slightly bracing initial taste and uninspiring mouthfeel and yet, at 6% ABV, this problem does not last for very long. Soon it tastes merely like Budweiser: a warm, sugary, slightly urea-tinged beer with a faint metallic taste in the background. This beer has a thicker taste, more toward oatmeal than flour if you take my metaphor, but it is not mystically different. The real problem is that it is a blast of sugar like most mass-culture products, which means that the hangover is brutal because your liver deals with the dual assault of beer-flavored Shasta and the alcohol they add to keep it real. If you pound down this stuff, you should do as we did when we were kids drinking Schlitz “The Blue Bull” (which, from memory, tasted more like beer than the King Cobra) and drink a full glass of water and then some PowerAde to reconstitute your body after the equivalent of eating a half-dozen donuts.
I once went on a brewery tour at Annheiser-Busch and when we came to the “free beer room” at the end, I noted to the guy asking for our beer orders that there was no King Cobra. He was a gentle fellow and went to a secret tap in back to get me some. Apparently, Annheiser-Busch isn’t exactly promoting this beer except by marking it $3.64 and slapping it on the shelves at the far end where winos, college students and Republican presidential candidates go. This is not bad beer. It is too sugary for me, and some of the awkward tastes — a bitterness, a flat metallic undertone, even a yeasty taste that seems like the yeast aged wrong — make it something I will probably never reach for again. But it needs demystifying; this is nothing but fortified Budweiser and it’s not bad at all.