While ordinary beers in the United States average around 5% alcohol by volume, malt liquors typically range from 6% up to 9% alcohol by volume... American domestic "malt liquors" tend to be very inexpensive, although this is not necessarily true for foreign imports that are also labeled "malt liquor".That's it -- a cheap buzz. For that reason 40s are associated with ghetto drunks, but that's an unfair stereotype. Kihm Winship's excellent, detailed history of the 40 explains
...While black Americans comprise 12-14% of the population, they consume 30-33% of the malt liquor brewed in the U.S. The statistic is important for two reasons. First, it shows why brewers of malt liquor advertise more heavily to black people: As a group, they buy more malt liquor. The second important fact is that if a third of all malt liquor is consumed by black Americans, two thirds are consumed by people who are not black.The bottom line: cheap drunks come in all races. Further down that page is a lengthy discussion of charges that malt liquors are some sort of conspiracy against the black community.
I have to admit that when it comes to brand names, sometimes I confuse my cheap wines and malt liquors (look here for cheap wines). I guess I don't spend enough time perusing liquor stores. Adding to the confusion, some regular beers are sold in the 40-ounce size, including Budweiser and PBR. But when DMX raps about drinkin' 40s, he's not a Bud man.
Like everything else on this planet, 40s have inspired a community. Here's a guy who has collected 550 different bottles. The same site shows dozens of drinkers in their 20s enjoying their 40s and acting stupid.
Finally, I'll leave you with a favorite story. When I consulted downtown, I often went to White Hen Pantry (a convenience store) to pick up a quick lunch. One day I saw a man mosey up to the register and place his lunch on the counter: a 40-ounce King Cobra malt liquor... and a salad! Now that's healthy living!