Labatt Ice

That time when Canada's strong beers went to war

Take a sip and wipe your lips
Keep my forties getting warm
I'm audi, gots to fill
— E.P.M.D. "East Meets West Malt Liquor"

Described as "the silly season" by Lagerheads author Paul Brent, the early 1990's saw Canada's two major breweries Molson and Labatt declare all-out, scorched earth war. Each brand launched successive gimmicks aimed at luring unsuspecting beer drinkers over to their (dark) side, with the promise of exciting new brewing techniques, tough guy branding and cheap canned-heat head rock for those on a budget.

Not co-incidentally around the same time, malt liquor was fast becoming an object of cult adoration due to its omnipresence in the emerging mainstream hip-hop scene, with labels like Olde English 800, Colt 45, Schlitz and St. Ides appearing frequently in videos seen on Much Music's trailblazing Rap City and Soul in the City. For a time malt liquor had the stigma of a ghetto beverage, popular in inner cities, with advertising aimed squarely at black audiences, like Billy Dee Williams' smooth as Colt 45 spots. All of this was about to change.

First developed by Labatt in 1993, Ice Beer was brewed using a low-temperature process that caused unwanted proteins and tannins to precipitate at a faster rate. This act supposedly resulted in a smoother taste, but a much higher alcohol content, roughly 5.6 per cent alcohol, thus ensuring every under age drinker in Canada wanted a piece. Who better to sell this new bad man barley pop than Hans Gruber's right hand man, Karl, aka Alexander Godunov, Soviet defector, classical ballet dancer, and uh, Tom Hanks' love rival in The Money Pit.

Not only did Godunov's Karl-esqe sneering bad assery help position the new brew's attitude, but Johnny Marr's insane shredding from The Smith's B-side "How Soon is Now" sound-tracked it, proving to be the first time many 90s kids had dealt with The Smiths (interestingly, Chris Nolan instructed Hans Zimmer to recreate this nuclear bassline during the opening bank robbery sequence in The Dark Knight. Check it!). Shot on location at Ontario Place, this spot was also memorable for Godunov's chilling warning "if it's not ice brewed, it's not ice beer."

Moments after the arrival of Labatt Ice, Molson jumped into the fray with Canadian Ice and Dry Ice, offering even more buzz for your buck at 5.7 per cent alcohol. Word began to spread that Labatt was secretly engineering an even more potent sud which was due to hit the market in late 1993. In a staggeringly cheeky effort to score PR points, Molson began to lobby the government and cozy up to MADD, claiming real concern over the trend towards stronger beer. Damning the torpedoes, Labatt's in turn unleashed Maximum Ice onto the populace, clocking in at a whopping and unprecedented at the time 7.1 per cent alcohol content. And who better to sell this bottle of liquid sorcery than Michael Ironside?

Kind of, sort of re-creating his General Katana role from 1991's Highlander II: The Quickening, Ironside's tough as leather persona accompanied by thunder bolts and thrashing guitars brought about a sense that this brew contained unrestrained dark powers. Sales and popularity of Maximum Ice soared, as anyone who remembers the cold winter of 1993/1994 will tell you nary a concert, party or school function was complete without someone puking off too much Max Ice. In early 1994, the previously "concerned" Molson's launched XXX, an even more foul tasting swill at an even more teen enticing 7.3 per cent alcohol content. High School dances would never be the same.

With the launch of XXX a catalyst for even more wantonly drunken behavior, the media finally took notice of the gut rot carnage and along with the support of MADD called out Molson and Labatt. Watching the Ironside Maximum Ice commercial, it is patently obvious the intended demo was angry 15 year old head banging boys, and no doubt both companies were behaving irresponsibly by marketing such low grade, high alcohol content swill to anyone, never mind kids. The cool commercials disappeared, and the price point went way up.

Both Labatt Maximum Ice and Molson XXX are still available at the Beer Store, and remain a hobo favorite, but the days of Hollywood actors appearing in advertising to champion their taste and embody their spirit are long gone. Tragically, Alexander Godunov died of alcohol related illness in 1995 after a short but promising career ending on the cruel irony that his final performance ever was shooting commercials for Labatt Ice in Toronto.

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.


Join the conversation Load comments

Latest in City

5 things Toronto was supposed to get this year but didn't

The remote allure of Toronto streets in the 1990s

Here's what Toronto's newest Christmas market looks like

TTC delays full PRESTO rollout until 2018

Hamilton now has a hotter real estate market than Toronto

No Frills store suddenly shuts down in Toronto

What kind of house does $6 million get you in Toronto?

The earliest sunsets of the year happen this week in Toronto