Chicago is recognized as the birthplace of many original foods, like the Italian beef sandwich and the Maxwell Street Polish. Less well-known has been Jeppson’s Malort Liqueur, the Chicago original spirit that’s slowly emerging from the shadows to become a mainstream sip.
Malort deserves a place in the annals of American advertising because it’s one of those rare products that markets itself based on its undesirability. That’s right, Malort is famous for being foul-tasting…and it has a lot of fans.
I bought my first (and last) bottle of Malort in 2004, and it was not easy to find. I finally located a liquor store in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood that carried the spirit. When I got the bottle home, I found a small marketing card hanging around the neck of the bottle. With perverse pride, the card announced, “During almost 70 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson’s Malort after the first ‘shock glass.’” Adding in the almost forgotten old-timey language of macho numbskullery, the card further asserted, “It takes quite a man to drink Jeppson’s Malort.”
Malort is still marketed based on its notoriously loathsome taste and its folklore-enshrined ability to function as part of a rite of passage/test of manhood.
Malort is in a line of descent from Beskbrännvin, a colorless Swedish spirit distilled from grain or potatoes. Other similar spirits in the “burnt wine,” genre include brandywine in England and brennivἱn in Iceland. What sets Malort apart from other burnt wines is that it contains wormwood – Malort, in fact, is Swedish for “wormwood,” the woody shrub that also adds flavor to absinthe. Since it started being sold in 1912, Malort has always contained wormwood.
In 2018, the Chicago-based CH Distillery bought the Carl Jeppson Company and the Malort brand. Tremaine Atkinson, co-founder, and distiller at CH Distillery, organized some focused tasting sessions and ended up tweaking the original recipe just a little, though he remains respectful of the Malort tradition.
Malort is a funny drink, and Atkinson recognizes that the “gag joke schtick” is part of the reason behind Malort’s following. “But it’s more than that. It’s fun,” he says, “and I don’t want to lose that. When you hear people’s stories about Malort, there’s always some joy to it, and it’s not going to hurt anybody.”
So how does it taste?
Lacking the extreme herbaciousness of many amari – like Fernet-Branca or Ramazotti –Malort has a pronounced grapefruit-like acidity, bitterness, and astringency, but it’s somewhat “thin” on the palate, so it goes down easily if not entirely pleasantly. Overall, it’s not as vile as it’s purported to be.
If you want to try it for yourself, you now don’t have to drive all the way to Uptown. You can pick up a bottle at Famous Liquors in Forest Park, and the very fact that you can now find the spirit locally reflects the odd phenomenon that the popularity of Malort – for reasons not entirely understandable – is growing.