Malört: The “Unrelenting” Local Liquor
Photo Credit: Reed Kavner
If someone asks what the hell is the matter with you, odds are you just took a shot of Malört. If they tell you you’re sick, you probably told them you liked it.
Chicago is a city full of quirks, odd customs and superstitions, but few things about the city are as inexplicable as the tradition of torturing one’s own taste buds, and those of friends and enemies alike, by downing a shot of Malört at the neighborhood tavern. What is Malört? Well, that’s a loaded question. Basic definition wise, Malört is a wormwood-flavored schnapps originally from Sweden. If wormwood is ringing a bell that’s likely because it’s a key ingredient in a more well-known spirit, Absinthe. While Malört isn’t going to induce any hallucinations it will, well, momentarily alter your perspective.
The drink is generally served room temperature in a shot glass and closely resembles a slightly viscous pond scum. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. At 35% alcohol by volume it does pack a little punch, but the initial taste of rubbing alcohol is a palate’s wet dream compared to the bitter gasoline-meets-bile aftertaste. By aftertaste, of course, I’m referring to the ten to fifteen minutes post-shot when hair begins to grow out of the back of the imbiber’s throat and his eyeballs well up with tears.
Is it really that bad? In short, yes, though it’s a far worse experience for the unsuspecting. Armed with proper expectations and an iron stomach, a shot of Malört can be more funny than anything. Drinking it serves as a way for a drinker to flex a little muscle and is almost a right of passage for young Chicago bar-hoppers. However, the real pleasure of this drink lies in watching the unprepared and naive throw one back.
Malört’s only US distributor, the Carl Jeppson Company, goes so far as to place this warning on the bottle’s labels: “Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malört reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malört. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, ‘My Malört is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.’ It is not possible to forget our two-fisted liquor. The taste just lingers and lasts — seemingly forever. The first shot is hard to swallow! PERSEVERE. Make it past two ‘shock-glasses’ and with the third you could be ours… forever”
Well, there’s truth in advertising.
Mr. Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant, is credited with popularizing the drink here in Chicago, where it was made until the ’70s. Malört is currently produced in Florida for Jeppson Company and sold almost exclusively here in the city. Outside torturing Windy City mixologists and playing the role of strange novelty drink, I suspect that Malört may have been the dreaded Dip that Judge Doom used to off toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? So here’s your last warning — if you’re weak of stomach, or a 2D cartoon character, stay away from this beverage. Otherwise, grab a camera, hit the bar and try to catch your own Malört-face.