Made in Florida but sold mainly in Chicago, Jeppson’s Malört is a localized drink largely unknown outside of the Windy City. To those who have tried it, however, the drink’s bitter, nearly unpalatable flavor is legendary. To most, it’s a rite of passage—a nearly undrinkable shot choked down in a Chicago bar amongst friends, often to be talked about but never to be consumed again. Yet, to some, Malört represents something larger—a distinction, a challenge, a quest.
The liquor gets its name from the Swedish word for “wormwood,” and is the only wormwood-based drink to never be banned in the US. The origins of the bitter, herbal concoction are Scandinavian; the modern version migrated with Swedish immigrants to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. A Swedish newcomer, Carl Jeppson, started selling what would become today’s recipe door-to-door during Prohibition, labeling it as “medicinal.” Through several acquisitions, the brand survives today.
Malört is harsh and difficult to love. One YouTube video, titled “What Does Malört Taste Like” pretty accurately captures the experience. It starts with grapefruit and honey, but quickly devolves into a mélange of gasoline, earwax, Adolph Hitler, and OFF! Deep Woods®.
The makers of Malört admit that the product is niche. The original label featured the following challenge: “Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson’s Malört reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate…we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson’s Malört after the first ‘shock-glass.’”
So what is the appeal? Most people, this writer included, try the drink on a dare at the end of the night, egged on by friends (um, thanks, Todd and Soren?). Yet, although rare, some people actually like the taste. Lindsey Wallace, a transplant to Chicago, is a fan of the flavor: “I do like Malört,” she explains. “Now, I don’t have a bottle at my house, and I drink it only occasionally. BUT I do like it.”
But the most interesting aspect of Malört is how driven people are to try to make Malört drinkable. Chicagoan Simon Spartalian tells of an afternoon with Sergio Jaimes, the co-owner of Logan Square’s The Whirlaway Lounge. The two spent hours concocting various classic cocktails with Malört as the base liquor. Some were terrible (the Malört Old Fashioned and the Malört and Coke scored particularly low), but some showed promise, including the Malört Sex On The Beach and a Malört Sunrise. “We both noticed throughout the whole affair that Malört mixed with sweet things can actually generate some interesting flavors,” Spartalian explains. “The bitterness gets cut, but is still absolutely present.”
Another Chicagoan, James DeNoyer, has been tinkering with Malört recipes on his own and seems to have found success. His favorite? The Mörtball. Shake equal parts Malört and Fireball over ice and strain into glasses, served neat. Says DeNoyer, “Personally I dislike both separately, but for some reason together the bitterness and sugariness compliment each other.”
Yet even Malört recipes that work have limited appeal. “The Mörtball is great when everyone has already had a few, and we all feel like being a ‘lil silly,” explains DeNoyer. “I always refer to Malört as the last drink of the night, ‘cause I usually don’t want anymore after.”
Someone loves Malort so much, they got a Malort tattoo. Via Jeppson’s Malort/Facebook