Hard to Swallow

Session two of Project Igloo is scheduled to begin any minute. My designated driver and I push through the wide glass doors of the Courtyard by Marriott in Superior at exactly 7:30 p.m. Although it could be from the chlorine wafting in from the hotel pool, we can already feel the throat-scratching thirst in the air.

The purveyors of public opinion wait in the lobby like housecats, with long, disinterested faces and glances that drift from side to side. The guys look like me: T-shirts, creative facial hair, cell phones, a tattoo or three. The girls wear sandals, toe rings, midriffs, highlights and suggestions of lip gloss; they all carry overflowing handbags. We are the jaded young consumers of Denver, all standing atop mountains of past purchases, teetering at the precipice of bad credit ratings. We've been recruited here not for our superior sense of style or sophisticated intelligence, but because our tastes are statistically similar to those of young buyers everywhere else.

In the great echo chamber of popular taste, the factory of cool where trends and brand identity are manufactured, all the noise -- the particular pitch, tone and volume -- begins here, in a turnpike hotel off Highway 36.

Natalie, a young woman with long brown hair and pink stretch pants, stands with her hands on her hips, chatting with a group of friends. Periodically, one of them turns and looks down the long hallway, to see if they can catch the eye of a ponytailed researcher who might permit them expedient entrance into the conference room, like some headset-wearing doorman at an uber-hip nightspot. Natalie works retail at Wilson's Leather at nearby FlatIron Crossing. She was pulling a shift not too long ago when some lady came up and asked how old she was.

"I was like, 'Excuse me?'" Natalie recalls, boggling her head for emphasis. "Who wants to know?"

The woman explained that she was with Cunningham Field & Research Services, and they were recruiting 21- to 29-year-olds to sample different types of alcoholic drinks for a marketing study. They would pay respondents for their troubles: thirty bucks for the drinker, ten bucks for the driver. Natalie quickly recruited a gaggle of friends to take advantage of this stunning opportunity. My designated driver and I stand behind them in line as the subjects of a just-completed session filter down the hallway with distant, smirking eyes.

"How was it?" I ask a young fellow in a red hooded sweatshirt. He looks at me like I've just asked him to describe what the rocks on Mars taste like.

"Uhhh," he says, and passes without answer.

Two weeks earlier, I'd spotted a plain white flier with the words "Alcohol Study" taped to a storefront at FlatIrons. When I went inside to investigate, I was informed by a fellow at the desk that while he couldn't reveal the specific inebriant that Cunningham would be testing, a "major brand" was trying out a new beverage geared toward twenty-somethings.

Cunningham, a Florida-based company, has fifty consumer-research facilities across the country. Along with testing more mundane products like crackers and tube socks, they conduct alcohol exams for all types of brands that are itching to get data on how new offerings will play across the demographic landscape. The client specifies the age of the respondents and what questions should be asked, and a Cunningham team does the research through one-on-one sessions, focus groups and large-scale surveys. Then the company ships the raw data back to the sometimes confidential client. One week Cunningham employees could be testing bourbon, the next week wine or beer.

"As long as it won't make me go permanently blind or impotent," I tell the research group's rep, "I'm totally in."

"We don't actually get people drunk anymore," he replied, as if to dampen my enthusiasm. But I was already out the door, information sheet in hand.

According to Veronica Burgos, local manager for Cunningham, Denver is a great area for market research because it's growing and has a good racial mix. Roughly a dozen companies specialize in ground-level market research in the area, and most are located in or near shopping malls. Before relocating to FlatIrons last year, Cunningham was based at the Aurora Mall for five years. It recruits respondents through "mall intercepts" and even by going door to door, Burgos says, and while there might be a few people who have no interest in being a consumer guinea pig, most are happy to help out with new products. "There might be a woman who makes $300,000 a year and wants $5 for no reason, or just wants to see what's coming up," she adds.

Alcohol studies are one of the company's staples. While they used to conduct huge taste tests with up to eighty respondents at one time in a hotel conference room, they opted for smaller sessions when those logistics grew too unwieldy. But Cunningham continues to use hotels, because the exam rooms must possess a liquor license.

"The first question people ask," Burgos notes, "is 'Am I going to get drunk?'" Although she contends that no one ever gets seriously trashed, participants are informed that they will be ingesting up to three ounces of alcohol over a one-hour period, depending on the drink. "That's why we have designated drivers," she says. "We don't know people's tolerance."

About a week after I signed up, a Cunningham pre-screener called and asked my opinion of Mike's Hard Lemonade and what he kept calling "frozen malt beverages." I told him I enjoyed such drinks "occasionally."

"In the last two weeks?"

"Um, uh-huh."

"Is that a yes?"

"Sure," I said.

To be honest, I've never been much of a fruity-drink person, leaning more toward whiskey and domestic beer. But I'll drink pretty much anything if it's free, and especially if I'm getting paid.

"It's like a night out on the town except the servers tip you for getting shlizzy!" I explained to my friends. "Well, not technically shlizzy, maybe just a bit shwizzled." They were skeptical. "It's also for science," I added. "Well, research, actually. Market research."

Now we file into the testing facility, which is really just a large conference room with seating for 27 people, three each at nine tables covered by white cloths. The ten Cunningham employees -- a sober-faced group, I note -- wear variations on dark business attire and sit behind a long table covered with stacks of paper printouts. They are twenty minutes behind schedule. After checking my ID to make sure I was born between the years 1975 and 1984, they have me sign a waiver that basically says 1) I have not consumed booze in the last twelve hours; 2) I am not allergic to the booze I have not consumed in the last twelve hours; and 3) I am not an alcoholic. The form also includes a paragraph that pretty much releases them from all liability resulting from anything that might occur during or after this study. I am given a name tag that identifies me as Respondent #0328, and after bidding farewell to my designated driver, who heads off to the lobby, I find a seat near the wall.

On each table are little folded signs titled "Tasks" with the instructions "Look, Smell, Taste, Rate" and a diagram of the process. A bottle of water and a napkin with two Saltine crackers have been neatly placed in front of each chair. I stare at a laminated info sheet for Smirnoff Ice Storm, one of the drinks I assume we'll be sampling. The sheet shows it coming in a plastic silver container that's much wider and sleeker than a normal beer bottle. It looks like something that ultra-cool club-goers of the future might drink from, should they want to travel back in time and party like it's 2005. "Freeze 3 hours, shake and ready to drink," the sheet instructs, alongside a little pictogram of a man buying the drink for $8.49 a six-pack, putting it in his fridge, then pulling out a bottle, shaking it and guzzling something called "Citrus Snow."

Although Smirnoff Ice Storm is still a work in progress, it's clearly an outgrowth of the non-frozen and very successful Smirnoff Ice, a dry, lemony drink introduced to the U.S. market in 2001 that quickly sold its way to the top of the category known as Flavored Malt Beverages, or "Malternatives." These are not to be confused with low-budget, brown-bag malt liquors like Mickey's, Olde English 800 or the fearless King Cobra -- mainstays for a pleasant afternoon behind the dumpster or slurring gangsta rap throw-downs. By comparison, Malternatives hover at around 5.0 percent alcohol by volume (about the same as most beers) and are marketed to young sophisticates who want to imbibe energetically but don't necessarily enjoy the taste of hops and barley.

For a beverage industry desperate to fill the vacant condo left by the ill-fated wine-cooler fad of the '80s, Malternatives offer several ways to pump up stagnant sales. As the name suggests, they're brewed using a malt base, just like a beer, and thus contain no hard liquor. Malt beverages can therefore be classified as a beer rather than a spirit, which means they are not only taxed at a lower rate, but can be sold in most convenience stores and supermarkets. And the real kicker: They can be advertised on TV.

The pioneer in the Malternative world was Zima, which Coors rolled out in 1993 with a series of massive TV campaigns that riffed on the "alcohol refresher" as "Zomething Different" (see story). The onslaught of "hard" drinks came in the late '90s. Suddenly, iced teas could be "hard." Lemonades could be "hard." Same with cider and root beer. The description was no coincidence: The beverage industry recognized that early Malternative attempts were quickly stigmatized as effeminate because they masked the alcohol taste with sweetness. Who drank Zima? Zissies. (Never mind that Tupac could rap about Alize and have every wannabe thug this side of suburbia slugging on the passion-fruit dreck like it was liquid testosterone.)

So when global booze conglomerate Diageo -- which owns Johnnie Walker, J&B, Guinness, Baileys and Tanqueray, among others -- wanted to develop a Malternative based on one of its brands, it knew it would have to do something to break out of the Malternative stereotype. In 1999, Diageo approached Boulder-based Sterling-Rice Group, which specializes in brand development. They knew that young consumers were interested in experimenting with new drinks, explains Sterling-Rice managing partner Ed Rzasa, and they saw the most promise in vodka, with brands like Ketel One and Grey Goose moving into the market for high-end mixed drinks.

"What was happening was that spirits were becoming more sophisticated, more masculine," he says. "They still love beer, and there's still great things about beer -- it's very convenient, it's refreshing, you can drink it with your buddies. So the big insight finally is, what if we combine the two? Create a hybrid beverage, which takes the best of the spirit world, which is what Smirnoff offered, and the best of the beer world, which is the ease and the convenience and the drinkability and all those other issues."

Smirnoff had a similar drink that was doing very well in the U.K. and Canada -- where the market is known as "alco pop" -- but that actually contained vodka. Vodka wasn't an option in the States, though, just this sissy-ass malt stuff.

"You're always trying to avoid the wine-cooler-type imagery," Rzasa explains. "Some things change, but some things never change: Guys will never drink a female beverage." Since women will drink a male beverage, the trick is to make a drink seem as manly as possible so that the more experimental drinkers will feel comfortable while their buddies down Coors Light.

After Diageo came up with a premium malt beverage version of its European product, Sterling-Rice called for a complete makeover so that Smirnoff Ice would exude a sophisticated, masculine vibe. The bottle was embossed to give it a rough-hewn but smooth texture, and the new red and silver label borrowed heavily from crests and shields. "It looks like it was designed for men," Rzasa says. "Because the actual product inside is easy to drink, you have to sort of counter that with the imagery."

After testing in the college towns of Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina, Smirnoff Ice went national in 2001. It quickly became one of the best-selling Malternatives on the market, spawning a host of imitators that latched onto the idea of creating a light, sweet-flavored malt beverage and labeling it with a well-known liquor brand. The years 2003 and 2004 saw the introductions of Bacardi Silver, Skyy Blue and the truly disgusting Captain Morgan's Gold, each with an accompanying advertising blitz targeting twenty-somethings. Though Sterling-Rice's branding efforts ended with Smirnoff Ice, Diageo furthered its foray into the American market by launching the even more tough-guy Smirnoff Ice Triple Black, which is housed in a jet-black bottle and includes a NASCAR sponsorship. "We have quickly become the leader, not just in terms of innovation, but overall volume sales leader, with over 50 percent of the segment," says Andy Jensen, brand director for Smirnoff Ice, from his New York office. The introduction of Smirnoff Twisted 5, Ice's fruity counterpart that comes in black cherry, watermelon, raspberry, cranberry and green apple, helped boost Diageo over that halfway point. And even though the entire Malternatives category declined 4.2 percent last year, sales of Smirnoff Ice and its brand extensions grew 6 percent.

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association of America, a not-for-profit trade group based in Boulder, offers a much gloomier prognosis for Smirnoff Ice and its Malternative cousins. According to the data he's looking at, the Malternative category peaked last year and has since declined 7.5 percent in sales in supermarkets and convenience stores, and 10.5 percent in drugstore sales.

"In general, I think the sense is that Smirnoff Ice is declining significantly as a brand," he says. "So a lot of what's happened with many of these flavored malt beverages is that they've extended into fruit type of flavors."

"But," Gatza adds, "Smirnoff Ice is definitely still the big dog on that scene."

"No one is allowed to sit next to anyone they know," a Cunningham operative explains loudly to the test subjects. This is designed to reduce socializing once drinks are served -- not that the room is a rager now. More participants filter in and look for seats. Natalie shifts uncomfortably in her chair and pulls her midriff top down over her back tattoo.

"Do you know if we get paid today?" whispers a girl behind me. John, a muscular guy in his mid-twenties, says he doesn't know. He sighs and looks toward Jessica, who's sitting in front of him at my table, exchanging some wordless, knowing communiqué. Eventually, Jessica turns and smiles politely at me over the empty chair between us. I ask if she's ever taste-tested here before. Not alcohol, she says, but she recently tested other products for Cunningham.

"Nuts," she says, lifting her eyebrows toward the sunglasses positioned on top of her head like stylish solar panels.

"You mean, like, salted peanuts?" I ask. "Mixed nuts?"

"Mm-hmm," she affirms, with a long drawn-out hum like she's savoring a few in her mouth right now. She threw away the nuts that were too salty, but got to keep a few cans of the good ones.

"Mmm," she nods.

As I try to gauge if this chick is messing with me or just really weird, another young woman sits in the chair between us. She has short, cropped hair, and strange disk-like earrings dangle from her lobes. The name tag on her pink shirt says "Lauren," but Jessica calls her Laurie, and they are trying to pretend that they don't know each other.

As Lauren/Laurie scoots in her chair, I lean forward. Like Smirnoff Ice, I am smooth and sophisticated. I am a new breed of man, not some old-fashioned boor afraid to take chances.

"I don't think you can sit there," I impart to her coolly, "since we know each other." She looks at me, confused, trying to place my face. "Don't you remember?" I flash my most coquettish smile. "Last summer?"

She laughs and makes a quip about this one time at band camp. But then Jessica grabs the ring finger of Laurie's left hand. "She's married," she says, training the modest stone of her friend's wedding band on my eye like a laser pointer. I can hear John snickering behind us. That was neither crisp nor refreshing. Retreating into my chair, I casually glance one table down at the guy Laurie came in here with. With his overgrown stubble and thrift-store T-shirt, he looks like a geeky record-store clerk. That's her husband? His canvas messenger bag is probably filled with rare vinyl by the Smiths and empty Kleenex boxes.

Finally, the researchers bring in the first of many forms that we will need to fill out. This one asks about our drinking habits and lists the Smirnoff Citrus Snow flavor, as well as two other choices: Blackberry Blizzard and Green Apple Freeze. None of them sounds particularly appetizing. As far as I'm concerned, hard liquor and sweets should be combined on only one occasion: Halloween, after the kids have gone to bed. Other than that, if you're the type of person who hates the taste of alcohol so much that you need to mask it with something from the candy aisle, you should probably stick to sucking down Vicodin with Robitussin chasers alongside all the other listless teens behind the mall. But the survey wants to know "Which one of these flavors appeals to you the most?" so I circle Green Apple as an act of sarcastic rebellion. When do we move on to discussing serious issues that matter to the youth of America, like straight Smirnoff?

The researchers collect the forms. Jessica and Laurie both circled Citrus Snow. When the researchers re-emerge from the back room with many plastic cups, I realize that the choice each individual circled on the survey will be the flavor that person samples for the entire study.

We get another form, headed "How do you like the overall appearance of this sample?" and listing these choices:

like extremely

like very much

like moderately

like slightly

neither like/dislike

dislike moderately

dislike slightly

dislike very much

dislike extremely

I examine the contents of my cup, which look something like a frozen margarita. I'm a little peeved about being stuck with green apple, so I punish the drink by circling "dislike slightly." The questions continue: How do I like the color? How do I feel about the smell and the "overall aroma"? The form then instructs me to "cleanse" my "palate" by taking a bite of cracker and drink of water. I must finish the whole drink before continuing, the instructions order, and I do so in large, frozen gulps. Do I approve of the "level of iciness?" What about the texture?

Before I can finish writing, I'm served another drink. This one has a trace of green coloring, and the green-apple flavoring is more pronounced. What do I like about this one?

"It's greener," I write.


"It's too sweet," I scribble, shaking large chunks into my mouth. "I kind of have a headache."

I am not even two sips into Sample #2 when one of the researchers sets a new drink in front of me. I'm not drinking fast enough, apparently. Me! I've been accused of a lot of things, but never of drinking too slowly. I take a big slug. These damn questions keep tripping me up. Do I dislike it slightly or dislike it moderately? The green-apple flavor in the next sample is stronger yet -- but at least I can taste the alcohol. This will be my third drink in fifteen minutes. Halfway through, I start feeling benevolent. I check "like very much" on the questionnaire. Laurie and Jessica start to giggle. I begin laughing, too. This is so...silly! Laurie looks at me, and I am startled by her suddenly heavy, bloodshot eyes.

"I drank these way too fast," she says. "My nose is numb."

"How clean and crisp is the taste?"

Extremely clean and crisp

Very clean and crisp

Somewhat clean and crisp

Slightly clean and crisp

Not at all clean and crisp.

After a few more swills, I get a wicked throat freeze. Reaching for the bottled water, I spill Sample #3 on the survey. As I wipe it up with a paper napkin, the answers get smudged.

"Oh, you've done it now," Laurie laughs.

I'm starting to feel like I'm not a very good test-taker. I stick an entire cracker in my mouth.

According to Burgos, Cunningham sometimes has trouble getting reliable respondents for the alcohol taste tests, since they require that people show up at a specific time and place. On the flip side, some respondents are too reliable. "There are people who call up every single day wondering if they can test products out," she says. "They'll hit up every research group in the city. This is how they try to make their living, but I don't think they ever earn enough money to make it worth it."

I'm beginning to think that no amount of money would make this worth it. Not only does everyone seem to be completing their surveys faster than me, but I also have to piss like crazy. I feel like I'm back in college at an 8 a.m. final, still drunk from the night before. But here, in this horrible place, the drinking is the test. I start circling answers arbitrarily. Dislike. Like extremely. Frosty. Great, loved it.

The last sample comes. The green apple is most powerful in this one, and I grimace as I choke down a swallow. I've drunk moonshine out of Mason jars that had less bite. I begin to get the acrid feeling of vomit tickling the bottom of my throat. I burp, and a little of it jumps into my mouth (known technically as a "vurp"). I lean to the side and wipe my lips on the drapes.

What do I like about the taste?

"Hello!" I write.

What do I dislike?

"Oh, my God," I scribble on the line. "Way too strong. I can't feel my tongue."

I am the last person to finish. I raise my hand and one of the researchers comes over and reviews my questionnaire. Four drinks and a bottle of water in a little over 45 minutes; I cross my legs and ask for permission to go pee. He gives me the okay and I head to the door, but I'm blocked by a large woman making her way back from the lobby with half of a complimentary sandwich crammed into her mouth. I scamper around her, doing an awkward speed walk all the way to the men's restroom.

I return much more relaxed, but then one of the researchers calls me over. There's a problem with one of my answers. "You wrote that you hadn't had a frozen malt beverage in the past four weeks," he says.

"That's because I haven't."

"Well, if you wouldn't have had any in the last four weeks, " he replies, "then you wouldn't have qualified for the study."

"Oh, no, I forgot," I stammer. "I had a Zima about three weeks ago. Uh, cherry-flavored."

The researchers put a special mark on all of my questionnaires; I think I've just been blacklisted. At the front of the room, Laurie is in a little huddle with her husband, Jessica and John. They mutter and look over at me. Did Laurie catch me trying to read her name tag and respondent number while I was taking notes, and think I was staring at her boobs? How hard do you think record-store-clerk-husband can swing that messenger bag?

Please select one: hard, very hard, extremely hard.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid, or maybe this green apple is seriously messing with my brain.

My designated driver appears. "How was it?" she asks, and I start complaining loudly about the sugary nature of my drink.

The sandwich-eating woman pipes up from behind us: "Who cares about your opinion, anyway?"

"Yeah," says a goateed guy standing next to her. "What we just drank today, college freshmen all over the U.S. will be drinking next year."

Are they being sarcastic? I can't tell. I just give a halfhearted "Yeah" and take my check from the Cunningham people. The first thing I will do with the cash is buy my designated driver and myself a drink at the nearest restaurant: whiskey, to stab this goddamned taste out of my mouth. I don't just need to cleanse my palate; I need a power wash, like that stuff city workers use to remove graffiti. If there isn't a drink like that, some company should invent it. And then it can do test-market research on people like me who have just come out of other test-market studies.

My designated driver and I push through the wide glass doors and go out into the cool summer night. After surviving the frosty gauntlet, I'm walking with a little manly swagger. Jessica, John, Laurie and Laurie's husband are standing in a circle under the large carport. They've been waiting for me. "Are you some kind of double agent for another company?" Laurie asks. They saw me taking notes and wonder if I'm a spy for Absolut or another brand looking to get a jump on the hot Malternative market. Or maybe I'm an undercover quality-control expert for Smirnoff, making sure that Cunningham is testing its products correctly.

"Because we want to know how we can get in on that," Laurie says. "Getting paid twice for one test study, that'd be great."


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