"They're like, ‘Here, drink this!’ And you do it and you're like, ‘What the fuck?’ You don't understand what's going on, and there's a tire fire in your mouth for the next half hour, and you can't taste anything, and you're twitching on the floor.
All photos by the author
Mentioning Jeppson's Malört to the average person will likely yield you one of two responses. There's the innocent virgin: they've never heard of the stuff, but they often instantly recognize a sort of gravitas to the name, which sounds like the name of a cunning old wizard or a sinister Lovecraftian beast. You tell them about it, and their reaction isn't dissimilar to someone's first time learning about Morgellon's disease: morbid curiosity, with a healthy dose of revulsion. Then, there's the person who knows. A brief mention of the stuff brings a shit-eating smirk to their face. "Ah, that old stuff," they say, remembering it with a warmth and pride not unlike a crusty old veteran reminiscing about his hard-earned battle scars.
Malört, as a beverage, doesn't sound terribly off-putting: it's a Swedish wormwood liqueur, not unlike absinthe. But this stuff packs a bitterness that keeps going for long after that shot first bare-knuckles its way down your esophagus. It is Chicago's greatest inside joke with itself: a liqueur that no one likes but everyone loves, thanks to being both a good way to prank out-of-towners and an excellent measure of one's mettle. It is so inherently vile that, in a modern-day capitalist society, it does not belong on the market. And yet, after decades of producing "Malört face" in unsuspecting drinkers, it continues to be sold—and consumed—to this day.
Needless to say, it's a curious phenomenon, and one that warrants some explanation. I wanted to talk to someone deeply familiar with Chicago's drinking scene, so I dialed up Toby Maloney, founder of Chicago artisanal cocktail emporium The Violet Hour. Fresh off a James Beard Award victory, Maloney gave it to me straight. "Everybody in Chicago is just so proud of their city, which is obvious, because it's such a fucking phenomenal place," he says. "But you have to earn living in Chicago. You earn it by living through those winters. And if Malört isn't the liquid equivalent of a Chicago winter, I'm not really sure what is." (Ironically, Malört is actually distilled in sunny central Florida nowadays.)
Maloney describes his introduction to Malört thusly:
"I lived in Chicago in the early '90s in the Ukrainian Village. I was working as a cook and broke as fuck, and so what you did was you went drinking on Division Street, where there were all of these just really crappy bars with peeling linoleum floors and swinging fluorescent lights, and people in there drinking till 6 AM. It wasn't nice, but it was cheap. You'd drink your beer, and somebody would give you a shot of Malört as a dare. I'm going to go ahead and say that's what it was: a prank. They're like, 'Here, drink this!' And you do it and you're like, 'What the fuck?' You don't understand what's going on, and there's a tire fire in your mouth for the next half hour, and you can't taste anything, and you're twitching on the floor. And then the next week, you do that to somebody else."
In other words: Welcome to Chicago, asshole.
While the recipe is just as revolting as the day Carl Jeppson first slapped a label on it, Malört has experienced a recent resurgence. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Jeppson's sales had skyrocketed 80 percent in the span of just a couple of years.
Maloney blames this on American cocktail drinkers' somewhat recent openness to trying more bitter beverages. "We grow up in the United States on fucking Coca-Cola and Ho-Ho's, so the idea of drinking Campari or something with a bitter edge—you really have to work to get to like that," he says. "But nowadays, the generation after me, they grew up on Fernet. You go out of your way to learn to love it, and wrap your head around all these things that, 20 years ago, just seemed impossibly bitter." (He adds that, in spite of this recent collective palate-shift, it'll likely be a cold day in hell before your average Chicago watering hole is offering up Malört-and-sodas on the menu.)
Despite all of this information, I still couldn't quite wrap my head around the fact that a spirit this notoriously horrible not only exists, but remains steadfastly locked in place as a beloved cult drink. So, I turned to Greg Best, one of the South's most knowledgeable and respected cocktail authorities, and one hell of a talented barkeep. We met up at a local cocktail den called Bocca Lupo, and Best gave us the rundown.
"Malört's always been somewhat of a rite of passage," Best explains. "Throughout beverage culture, as far back as the Romans, we've had certain kinds of wines and spirits that were purported to be health elixirs, but tasted absolutely horrible." As he pours an ounce or so of the stuff into snifters for us to try, he explains how the Swedes created brännvin ("burnt wine") and infused it with wormwood, an anti-parasitic, to treat stomach worms. As the Swedes immigrated into Chicago en masse in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought their worm-potion with them, and the larger community latched on. A Swedish immigrant named Carl Jeppson began bottling it, and a legend was born. The stuff was sold straight through Prohibition as medicinal alcohol, because in Best's words, "It's so horrible, no one thought anyone could recreationally drink this." And, yet.
The first time someone mentioned Malört to me, I thought it sounded like something one could only procure by traveling to a remote cave and solving a rune, or perhaps losing a bet with a talking serpent. In fact, if you're outside of the Midwest, that's not too far from the truth. Jeppson's Malört is deeply geographically specific to its roots, only distributing in a handful of states. Whether this is out of loyalty, or simply because no one else in the country would ever consider drinking it for fun, is up for debate.
Either way, I had to take to the Internet black market and get it off of a stranger, eventually landing a bottle from the depths of a Chicago expat's liquor cabinet (a bottle that, amusingly and disturbingly, was already half-empty).
We taste it as Best narrates what our poor, unsuspecting palates are undergoing. "The tannins from the actual wormwood itself are basically peeling off your top flavor layer," he says. "So all you're getting is the alcohol. It's anesthetizing your tongue from picking up any fruits, herbs, or salinity." The stuff inspires poetry: everyone seems to have a uniquely vivid way of describing it. "Like getting mugged in a prison shower," Toby had told me over the phone. "It tastes like … burning," said my friend Cris. "What's that thing they do in the Mexican cartels, where they soak a tire in gasoline and then put it over you and light it on fire?" Toby asked. "That's kind of what that first shot is like."
So, with my first taste of Malört under my belt, I issue Best a challenge: make us a drink with it. One that's actually potable, perhaps even enjoyable. He's game.
As he unravels his bartending kit and gets to work, Best explains his strategy in taming the Jeppson's beast by working in other ingredients to add some sort of balance to a very unbalanced liqueur. He embraces the liquor's bitterness, rounding it out with bitters, tonic water, and China China (hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em). He lifts it with acidity from citrus juices, orange bitters, and garnish. He adds sweetness from a salted honey syrup to make it "a little more floral, and less like a dusty incense box, which is what it feels like I've just swallowed a tablespoon of."
Twenty minutes later, Best has worked his way toward two cocktails: the first attempt a slightly tart, but still quite bitter stirred drink that, to quote Best, "a cocktail nerd could probably get down with" but an average bar-goer might think "tastes like a shoe"; the second, a deceptively pretty and shockingly drinkable prosecco cocktail that looked more at home on a patio at brunch hour. The Malört, while still unapologetically present, was tamed into submission by the brightness, sweetness, and florality of the other ingredients. "I think that if we were to serve these to any unsuspecting victim, they would not know there was anything vile in there," Best muses. Mission accomplished.
Of course, this experiment is also complete and total heresy. This stuff is meant to be consumed straight-up, with grit and valor, followed by facial contortions and a string of cusses—not delicately sipped from a champagne flute. But hell, it was worth a shot. And when tamed by the proper additives, for a brief moment, you might wonder, Maybe this stuff isn't so bad after all.
Wait, no. It definitely is. But at least it'll get rid of your stomach worms.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.