Some spirits require a bit of taste bud acclimation, and one of those spirits is Chicago’s Jeppson’s Malört.
The bitter liqueur has turned into a calling card of sorts for the Windy City, despite causing most drinkers to recoil in disgust. Carl Jeppson Co., the makers of Malört, actually celebrates the liquid’s ability to make people hesitate to take the shot.
Malört is a bäsk brännvin, a style of Schnapps from Sweden infused with wormwood, the same ingredient which gives absinthe its nasty reputation. It also has a similar anise flavor, with more burn.
Among the mass immigration of Swedes in the early 1900s was Carl Jeppson, who settled in Chicago and began selling his drink following Prohibition, before selling the recipe to a Chicago distillery and building a brand beyond the Swedish population.
Even then, Jeppson knew his product wasn’t meant for everyone.
“My Malört is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits,” Jeppson would say, according to the company.
Malört hasn’t become much of an export—more than 90 percent is sold in Cook County—and instead is a calling card for Chicagoans to prove their worth and that of their visitors and guests.
The bitter, herbal spirit is said to have some remedy for digestive issues and even hangovers, rooted in its Scandinavian heritage.
The rise of bitter liqueurs the past decade—like Fernet, Cynar and Campari—are largely due in part because of the growing cocktail cultures developing in cities across the nation. Malört, on the other hand, is often a stunt and a way to ingrain someone in Chicago culture.
Innovative Chicago bartenders are using the spirit more in cocktails, often as a rinse or as a replacement for bitter amaros.
The company does promote several social media channels titled “Malört Face,” dedicated to showcasing drinkers’ first shots.
“It is not possible to forget our two-fisted liquor,” the company says. “The taste just lingers and lasts – seemingly forever. The first shot is hard to swallow! Make it past two ‘shock-glasses’ and with the third you could be ours… forever”