Some 20 years ago, a vibrant new beverage, the wine cooler, introduced a generation of barely legal drinkers to the taste of booze. This thirst quencher — made popular by R. Stuart Bewley and Michael M. Crete, who, before going commercial with California Cooler, mixed wine, fruit juice and carbonated water in washtubs at Santa Cruz beach parties — was characterized by unique fruit flavors and an extremely light alcohol aftertaste. And it did the trick, just like beer. Beer, however, is an acquired taste. ”Coolers are not,“ boasted Patrick Roney, then senior product manager for Seagram Wine Co. ”Coolers taste good, immediately.“

Thanks to clever and aggressive advertising campaigns, and loads of inexperienced drinkers thirsty for a buzz, the refreshment was an instant smash. Remember Bartles & Jaymes pitchmen Frank and Ed pleading ”for your support“? And who can forget actor Bruce Willis ”moonlighting“ as a Seagram‘s spokesman-crooner? The wine-cooler wave crested in ’87, with a gushing 122 million gallons sold in the U.S., according to the Wine Institute, a public-policy advocacy group for California wineries. In fact, the success of coolers also gave a boost to a wine industry that had slumped under the weight of an oversupply of grapes following wine‘s growing popularity in the ’70s. Unfortunately for Frank and Ed, the support wouldn‘t last.

In 10 years, wine coolers had gone the way of pogs, Jheri curls and New Kids on the Block, evaporating to 18.6 million gallons sold in ’95. Why, exactly, did they go flat? For one thing, numerous cooler enthusiasts graduated to beer and sparkling nonalcoholic fruit drinks. Moreover, the market became cluttered with inferior brands, which turned consumers off. Plus, the beverage was too darned sweet to be ingested on a regular basis. Many cooler makers tried to keep the romance alive by frequently introducing new flavors. Another lifesaving tactic employed by most companies was to switch from a cooler based on wine to one based on malt, cheaper to produce yet comparable in taste — hence the words ”flavored malt beverage“ on some of today‘s bottles.

Nevertheless, the Great Cooler Depression saw more than 100 casualties, among them trailblazers California Cooler and Miller Brewing Co.’s Matilda Bay. The few survivors, including Bartles & Jaymes and Seagram‘s, have been integrated into a new category labeled ”low-alcohol refreshers,“ encompassing an array of soft liquor products such as spiked lemonade, lemon-orange brews, hard ciders and spirits-based coolers. Some brands have been launched just this year, with hopes of enrapturing a new breed of boozehounds. ”Hard lemonade seems to be what’s going on now,“ says new-products expert Tom Vierhile. ”Hard ciders are also very rapidly growing.“

Scouring supermarkets, liquor stores and convenience stores throughout the city (as well as pestering companies for freebies), we sampled enough low-alcohol refreshers — defined here as low-proof (not over 7 percent alcohol) beverages in single-serve bottles — that we should probably consider attending some sort of 12-step group. Each product is rated on a 10-point scale, based upon sweetness, quenchability and alcohol aftertaste. And for the fellas out there who are afraid of getting caught sipping a ”chick drink,“ as coolers are referred to by frat types with brain fluids of more than 50 percent beer . . . Drink up! We won‘t think any the less of you.

Our findings:

Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery’s Bartles & Jaymes Berry Flavored Cooler epitomizes what coolers are all about — sweet as soda, smooth and refreshing like punch, and absolutely no alcohol aftertaste. Rating: 10.

Bartles & Jaymes Fuzzy Navel Flavored Malt Beverage tastes just peachy, not to mention very smooth and quenching. Rating: 9.

The sweet-‘n’-salty Bartles & Jaymes Margarita Flavored Malt Cooler is B&J‘s strongest drink, in terms of alcohol aftertaste. Rating: 8.

The flavor-challenged Bartles & Jaymes Original Flavored Cooler would taste a lot better if you poured some fruit juice into it. Rating: 5.

Bartles & Jaymes Strawberry Daiquiri Flavored Malt Beverage’s silky-smooth consistency is complemented by a nice, fruity ambiance. Rating: 9.

A potpourri of luscious exotic juices makes Bartles & Jaymes Tropical Flavored Cooler, well, intoxicating. Rating: 10.

Bacardi‘s Breezer Calypso Berry goes down easy, but the berry aroma is much too weak. Rating: 5.

Breezer Piña Colada is bursting with brisk pineapple and coconut flavors. Rating: 9.

From the makers of the world’s leading brand of rum, Breezer Sax on the Beach goes down like a fruity, slightly salty soft drink, completely void of alcohol aftertaste. Rating: 7. a

Breezer Watermelon is highlighted by a delectable, Jolly Rancher–like fragrance. Rating: 9.

Glacier Bay Vodka & Cran-Grapefruit would make a splendid breakfast citrus drink, if it weren‘t for that showing-up-to-work-plastered thing. Rating: 10.

Glacier Bay Vodka & Lemonade provides a fresh lemon bouquet and, as with the other G.B. beverages, has no heavy alcohol aftertaste. Rating: 10.

If you’re too lazy to mix a screwdriver on your own, just pick up a bottle of Glacier Bay Vodka & Orange. Rating: 9.

HardCore Crisp Hard Cider sort of defeats the purpose of being a beer alternative with its bitter, beerlike fragrance. Rating: 5.

Aged in an oak barrel, Hornsby‘s Amber Hard Cider is very crisp, with a pleasing apple aroma. Rating: 8.

If you find yourself infatuated with the vigorous, unsweetened Hornsby’s Draft Cider, then congratulations — you can now graduate to beer. Rating: 6.

Hooper‘s Hooch Alcoholic Lemon Brew utilizes the ol’ fruit-pulp-in-the-bottle approach with this pleasantly citric refreshment. Rating: 9.

Great Britain‘s Hooper’s Hooch Alcoholic Orange Brew first conquered American taste buds in 1997 with its utterly thirst-quenching, tart-‘n’-tangy bouquet. Rating: 10.

A tribute to class pranksters everywhere, Jack Daniel‘s Country Cocktails Downhome Punch is reminiscent of the deliciously fruity, buzz-inducing spiked punch that made your prom truly a night to remember — or, maybe, not remember. Rating: 9.

Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails Lynchburg Lemonade‘s dominant harsh alcohol aftertaste paddles the wimpy lemon flavor’s rear end, while yelling, ”Who‘s your daddy?!“ Rating: 6.

The ruggedly handsome Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails Wildberry Jack is packed with a tart berry aroma, as well as the powerful kick that one would expect from the distillery synonymous with sour-mash whiskey. Rating: 10.

Distributed by Seagram‘s, Rick’s Spiked Lemonade sparkles with tangy natural flavors and a light malt aftertaste. Rating: 10.

The clean-tasting, sparsely sweetened Seagram‘s Original Golden Cooler goes to show you that not all coolers taste like alcoholic syrup. Rating: 9.

Seagram’s Wild Berries Flavored Cooler: See B&J Berry Flavored Cooler. Rating: 10.

Seagram‘s Wild Black Cherry Flavored Cooler is actually quite tame, with a delicate yet appealing cherry aroma. Rating: 8.

The only difference between Seagram’s Wild Grape Kiwi Flavored Cooler and a refreshing grape soda is that after drinking the soda you won‘t make passes at your best friend’s grandparent. Rating: 10.

The delightful, light-tasting Seagram‘s Wild Margarita Flavored Cooler goes down like a virgin margarita, except it hasn’t been honest with you about its promiscuous past. Rating: 9.

If the cooler industry ever goes belly up (again), the sweet and savory Seagram‘s Wild Pink Lemonade proves that its makers ought to remove the malt, which is unnoticeable anyway, and enter the sparkling-fruit-beverage business. Rating: 10.

Seagram’s Wild Strawberry Banana‘s fruit-juiced-up flavor and nonexistent alcohol aftertaste seems to be the company’s trademark. Rating: 10.

Seagram‘s Wild Watermelon: fruity, yummy, no alcohol taste, blah blah blah . . . Rating: 10.

Named after the punch line of a joke too long (and vulgar) to repeat here, Two Dogs Lemon Brew is a good, lemony refreshment, although the alcohol comes on a bit too strong. Rating: 8.

From the country that gave us Paul Hogan, Two Dogs Orange Brew is a decent quencher with a mild orange bouquet and a heavier-than-average alcohol aftertaste. Rating: 7.

Canada’s Wyder‘s Dry Peach Cider is not peachy at all, but rather bitter, with a rough alcohol aroma. Rating: 5.

The crisp, naturally fermented Wyder’s Dry Pear Cider is perfect for those who have outgrown the sweetness of the average wine-flavored coolers. Rating: 8.

Wyder‘s Dry Raspberry Cider’s natural fermentation, coupled with frail raspberry, makes it a bit too potent for the discerning cooler aficionado. Rating: 6.

In 1993, Coors Brewing Co. unveiled Zima, a clear-malt creation it claimed was based on ”what everybody wanted in an alternative to beer.“ What it actually came up with was a bland, inoffensive refresher that tries too hard to please everyone. Rating: 6.

And last, unfortunately (hiccup), but least, we have Zima Citrus, a malternative beverage that‘s as dull as dishwater, although you may get more citrus flavor with lemon fresh Joy. Rating: 2.

LA Weekly