Malört: Chicago's Favorite Bitter Liqueur

Jeppson's Malört at Trenchermen . Sarah Freeman

Unless you've spent a lot of time in Chicago, you've probably never tried Jeppson's Malört, an intensely bitter spirit that's only available in the city and surrounding suburbs.

And if you have, you probably know it as "that drink that tastes like burnt carpet."

That's exactly the description my friends gave when presenting me with my first shot last summer, but I took it and thought that it tasted more like a light grapefruit liqueur up front with a Campari-like finish.

My reaction wasn't typical (there's a Flickr pool dedicated to documenting "Malört Face," the unpleasant reactions that people have when taking shots of Malört), but I love deeply bitter amari, so I wasn't surprised. And taking the shot sparked my interest in learning more about the liqueur.

"a way to trick unassuming out-of-towners into taking a bitter shot."

Until a few years ago, Jeppson's Malört was consumed mostly at Swedish or Polish bars (the recipe is based on a Swedish spirit) or as a way to trick unassuming out-of-towners into taking a bitter shot. Then bartenders began to embrace it for its bitterness, and pretty soon, Jeppson's Malört was at almost every bar and appeared as an ingredient in lots of local cocktails. Recently, bartenders have been taking it a step further by making their own versions of Malört or adding the liqueur to bourbon barrels and aging it.

A few weeks ago, some cocktail-loving friends and I realized that by visiting just three bars in Wicker Park, we could try the original Jeppson's Malört, Malört schnapps made by Bittermens, a Malört made for The Violet Hour with Chicago's Letherbee Distillers, barrel-aged Malört, smoked Malört, Malört on tap, and eight Malört cocktails. So we did what any devoted Malört drinkers should do—set out on a bar crawl to sample everything in one long, boozy night.

But before I get to the results of the Great Malört Crawl of 2013, here's some background on the bitter liqueur.

Malört is a traditional Swedish spirit made with wormwood and other botanicals—Malört is Swedish for wormwood. In the 1930s, Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant who moved to Chicago, started producing his own version of the bitter liqueur, called Jeppson's Malört.

To learn a bit about it, I sat down with the Carl Jeppson Company's owner Pat Gabelick, social networking director Sam Mechling, and historian Peter Strom to talk about the history of the bitter drink.

Gabelick took over the company after she worked for many years as a legal secretary to George Brode, who owned a liquor company, D.J. Bielzoff Products Co., that included Jeppson's Malört. He eventually sold off the other products but kept Malört around, even though he didn't drink it.

When I arrived at the bar, Gabelick was drinking a glass of white wine. "I drink Malört when I have to," she said. "It isn't something I would choose to drink every day. George said, 'instead of Campari and soda, drink Malört and soda.' George rarely drink it either, but he just loved it."

So who's Jeppson?

"There was a man named Carl Jeppson who brought the recipe to George," Gabelick said. "Carl went up and down Clark Street with a bottle, stopped in bars and poured shots for people, and began to market it. They had no connection to each other, except George owned a distillery and Carl wanted to sell his recipe."

The company moved production to Florida in the 1980s, since there were no distilleries left in Chicago. They briefly made Jeppson's in Kentucky, before starting at Florida Distillers in 1989. Despite the move, Jeppson's is still only sold in Chicago and around the suburbs.

Mechling, a comedian and bartender, took over the company's Twitter and Facebook accounts, and made YouTube videos about Malört.

"When someone does a shot of Malört, it produces comedy," Mechling said. "It turns people into poets, since they have to explain what it tastes like."

Mechling plays around with Malört at Paddy Long's bar, and he said, "if the goal is to mask the bitterness, swapping tequila with Malört to make a margarita is very nice." He made me a Malari—half Malört, half Campari—that managed to be nicely balanced, despite the strong bitterness.

Strom called Malört "one of those little fossilized pieces of culture left in Chicago. Malört went from this niche ethnic drink to a Chicago phenomenon," he said. Strom began researching the liqueur and got in touch with the Historical Museum of Wines and Spirits in Stockholm. He learned that Malört is a besk brännvin and that there are four of them currently being made in Sweden.

"Besk means bitter, and it was made from the wormwood that grew around homesteads and consumed as a medicinal alcohol," he said. "It was traditionally made with a potato base and Malört was originally used for stomach maladies—to cure indigestion, hangovers, nausea."

He said that he's also read how besk was "used as a cordial in southern Sweden, and you'd take it with a little bit of sugar. You'd take a bite of sugar and a sip or put a sugar cube in your mouth and drink."

I've never seen Malört served straight with sugar, but I have seen it served in quite a few different ways. Join us on a bar crawl, will you?

Chicago Malört Crawl Stop #1: Bar Deville

Bäska Snaps at Bar Deville. Amy Cavanaugh

We met up at Bar Deville to start things off with a straight shot of Jeppson's Malört. The liqueur is a light straw color and you'll first get a wash of slightly bitter grapefruit flavors on your tongue. But what Jeppson's is known for is the aftertaste: a deeply bitter, lingering finish that feels like it'll never let up.

At Bar Deville, you can also try Bäska Snaps along side your Malört for comparison. Bäska Snaps is made by Bittermens, infused with wormwood, licorice, caraway, and citrus. We first noticed how different the color is—Bäska Snaps is quite amber—and that it smells strongly of licorice. Knowing that we had a big evening ahead, we sipped the liqueur, which was really sweet, thick and treacly. It was reminiscent of Fernet Branca in its viscosity, but some might compare it to cough medicine. None of us finished the Bäska Snaps, but Deville bartender Jason Turley said that he's considered using it in a Manhattan or Negroni. A visit to the Bäska Snaps website describes the spirit:

Throughout Scandinavia, it's tradition to take high proof aquavit and infuse it with bitter herbs to drink during the holidays and the long, cold winter that follows. These 'besk snaps' are served cold to family and visitors who need a bracing, bitter eye-opener...Determined to keep the tradition alive, Bittermens formulated a classic bitter schnapps by first creating an aquavit with flavors of caraway and infusing it with licorice, citrus and other herbs. It is then blended with a touch of sugar and combined with a wormwood distillate produced by one of the oldest distilleries in Pontarlier, France.

Chicago Malört Crawl Stop #2: The Violet Hour

R. Franklin's Malört at The Violet Hour.

Onward to The Violet Hour, where we started by sampling R. Franklin's Original Recipe Malört, made by Letherbee Distillers, a local operation we visited recently. Bar manager Robby Haynes created the recipe and he lends the liqueur his name (his middle name is Franklin).

"I had wanted to make something of my own for a long time," he said. "Everyone does gin and there's a growing interest in bitters. I don't care for absinthe but I love bitters and I had a recipe that I'd been working on here."

Haynes was infusing a grain spirit with wormwood, elderflower, juniper, a touch of star anise, and other botanicals and was making it in gallon batches. He teamed up with Letherbee, whose gin he liked, to make it in larger batches, and has recently tweaked the product further and will release it to the public soon. It will come in pocket size 200-mL bottles, since you use so little Malört at a time that a whole bottle can take awhile to go through.

R. Franklin's Malört is bitter up front and the bitterness never ceases. One companion likened it to getting punched in the face. It has a scent of burnt orange and anise, and a murky green color that comes from the wormwood. Haynes said that his family came to visit Chicago and wanted to know what his liqueur tasted like, so he gave them a sample.

"My father said that he liked it, but the others said they didn't know if it went bad, or what was wrong with it," he said.

Odin's Holiday at The Violet Hour. Sarah Freeman

After we tasted it straight, Haynes made us three cocktails using R. Franklin's Malört: Odin's Holiday, made with 5 Banks Island Rum, lime, Marie Brizard Crème de Cacao, and Peychaud's; World Shattered, with Salers, lemon, honey syrup, raspberry, and mint; and the Thigh High, with Letherbee gin, lemon, honey, egg white, and super-bitter Amaro Sibilla.

The three cocktails highlighted the liqueur's versatility, pulling out citrus notes and cutting sweetness. My favorite was the fruity and minty World Shattered, which was light and easy drinking, two words I wouldn't typically use to describe Malört cocktails. Before we left, Haynes whipped us up an unnamed concoction with Malört, lavender-infused Dolin vermouth, lime, gin, and Peychaud's, which deserves a spot on the menu.

Chicago Malört Crawl Stop #3: Trenchermen

Zombie at Trenchermen. Sarah Freeman

If you can handle one more stop on the Malört tour, make it at Trenchermen, where beverage director Tona Palomino has come up with some innovative ways to work with Jeppson's.

"I moved from New York to Chicago two years ago and when I arrived, a friend said I had to have it," Palomino recalls. "It's this beast of a spirit, so I thought, why not play with Malört?"

He started by serving us Jeppson's on tap, a fun serving method that doesn't alter the liqueur's flavor. But it was interesting to compare the original with Palomino's smoked Malört, which he makes by pouring Jeppson's Malört into a hotel pan and smoking it for 20 minutes with a combination of hickory, cherry, and apple woods. If you love smoky Scotches, you'll find that the process adds a welcome flavor to Malört. There's still some bitterness, but the smoke rounds off the harshness that Jeppson's has, making it into a pretty sippable spirit.

But our favorite Malört variation was the barrel-aged Malört, which is currently aging in a Hudson Baby Bourbon barrel. Palomino put the Malört in the barrel in November 2011, and planned to open it four months later, when Trenchermen was slated to open. The restaurant didn't open until last July, and Palomino decided to let the Malört age until it was a year old.

"We had no idea what would happen to the Malört when we barrel aged it, but it really mellowed things out considerably," he said. "Each time we tried it, it was sweeter and sweeter."

The Malört is still in the barrel, so you'll have to specifically ask for a sample. The barrel-aged Malört is a light tan color and has softened in a lovely way. It's round, sweet and caramelly with a short, bitter finish.

Palomino also uses Malört extensively in cocktails. The Desperate Vesper is the house Malört cocktail, and is made by stirring gin with Lillet Blanc and Malört. The Zombie is made with Gosling's rum, El Dorado White Rum, lime, grapefruit, honey, falernum, and Malört. The Heretic's Fate takes the smoked Malört and adds sour and absinthe. There's also a light cocktail that's no longer on the menu that Palomino said is "good for people just starting with Malört." It's a carbonated drink made with Malört, grapefruit, and a housemade tonic syrup; it tasted like a Paloma. Since Malört has strong grapefruit flavors, the fruit shows up frequently in cocktails that use Malört.

So what did we take away from the Malört crawl? It's fantastic to see a city embrace an unusual spirit in the way it's embraced Malört. It's also a testament to the city's bartenders that there are so many excellent cocktails and unique spins on the original formula. And if Trenchermen bottles that barrel-aged Malört, I will be first in line to buy it. But I also left thinking that the one spirit that I didn't have enough of that night was straight Jeppson's Malört—sometimes you don't need to change what's already perfect the way it is.