When else has a city said both "this defines us" and "this is terrible" about the same drink?
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Malört
Credit: Courtesy

My friend Matt, a seasoned New York City bartender, experienced a unique form of culture shock several years ago. When he relocated to Chicago in 2015, he came across a strange new liquid. At the Grace & Leavitt Tavern, a neighborhood firefighter bar about a mile west of Wrigley Field where he got a job, he was constantly serving, and being asked to drink, shots of Jeppson's Malört. He had never heard of it and, oddly contrary to the enthusiasm with which it was summoned, he felt it tasted awful.

Malört occupies the rare air of popular city-specific beverages that both connote pride and are widely perceived as being bad. Are there even any others? When else has a city said both "this defines us" and "this is terrible" about the same liquid? Over the years, I've heard people describe Malört as "citrus-flavored gasoline," "the regional prank beverage," "burnt vinyl car-seat condensation," "the vile flower liquor," "pure peer pressure," "the bad thing," "hipster virtue-signaling juice," and more. Malört's foul novelty has long acted as the prompt for an informal, vocabulary-rich Chicago party game best titled, "Describe The Singular Experience of Consuming Malört."

"It's a rite of passage," my father once said, "though I'm not sure to what." Introduced to Chicago in the 1930s by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson, Malört is distilled in the mode of a classical Nordic brännvin, which is made from potatoes, grains, or wood cellulose. Yet Malört itself has only wormwood as a flavoring component, and without much else to cut or cover it, the results are predictably funky. Wormwood, after all, is the most infamous ingredient in absinthe, and for a long time it was rumored to cause hallucinations.

Carl Jeppson was a Chicago cigar-shop owner who began selling his concoction to businesses and private citizens, often out of a suitcase on the sidewalk, during Prohibition. Because nothing about it was overtly pleasurable, Malört was easily masked as medicine…which made it quasi-legal to sell during those dark years. Jeppson's current director of marketing Sam Mechling says that when police officers would take Jeppson himself aside to interrogate him about the legality of his liquid, he would offer them shots and, stanky-faced after they took them, they would agree that what he was selling was not a recreational good. Mechling also tells of Jeppson's nearly constant use of cigars; the entrepreneur smoked so many that his taste buds were scorched and numbed, the theory goes, and the extreme kick to the palate that Malört causes was among the few things he could reliably taste.

By the time the Volstead Act was repealed and bars could again be legally tended, Malört had become well-known enough as a party-trolling tool in Chicago that Jeppson was able to sell the formula for his product, with his name attached to it. Unfortunately, like Franz Kafka and Vincent van Gogh before him, Jeppson never got to experience much of the financial success of his magic, despite the fact that his name is still attached to the concoction.

In the decades following the end of Prohibition, Malört lived in relative anonymity—more of a niche product than anything else, a Chicago insider's drinking secret. In the 1970s, the Jeppson's factory in Chicago relocated to Florida, but in 2019, following the company's acquisition by CH Distillery the year before, it came back to the Windy City, where production remains headquartered today.

Business has been good: Mechling says that since around 2008—which is when Malört became the stuff of memes, essentially—business for Jeppson's has expanded. It was at this time that a "Malört Face" channel that chronicled the countenances of first-time drinkers on the image-hosting site Flickr went viral, inspiring a curiosity that has only grown since. Today, the #malortface hashtag has more than 5,000 posts on Instagram.

Growth was significant enough that a trademark battle ensued over the commercial use of the word "Malört." Local distilleries Letherbee and FEW made their own takes on Malört (which are, frankly, far too enjoyable to stake a proper place in the tradition signified by the noun they were using) and were subsequently hit with cease-and-desist letters from Jeppson's in 2014; they had, after all, trademarked the word in 2013. Neither distillery fought the trademark; Letherbee now calls theirs Bësk, while FEW cheekily called theirs Anguish and Regret (that one is no longer produced). Both derivatives formed part of the small, admirable movement to make Malört a more palatable ingredient in pricier cocktails. 

As it's exploded in Chicago, Malört has become more available in other parts of the country, too. Hardcore Malört lovers in Chicago, however, might wish for their gem to stay local instead of spreading; there is always a careful, much-argued line that a viral product like this hovers around, subjectively dividing the value of obscurity from more widely shared enjoyment. Near this line is where non-believers accuse Malörtophiles of championing the liquid just to appear contrary and unique. Of course, no one can ever prove why someone else actually likes something, whether they order one drink over another because they appreciate how it tastes or simply for its social caché.

In any case, Malört's social presence has certainly risen. "It's harder and harder to find rubes who are unaware of it," Mechling says with a laugh. "Now you usually have to leave Chicago for the joy of sharing it for the first time, that thrilling moment of suspense. It's a weird way of showing affection for people," he says, "but it sort of exemplifies who we are as a city. It's rough at first, but you might grow to love it."

No other fermented or distilled liquid so potently carries the subtext—which is sometimes just text, no sub about it—of the ritual that is taking a shot: We're in this bullshit together. A sudden injection of Malört leaves little doubt as to the purpose of what you're doing, which is ingesting something extreme and disagreeable, often in order to feel closer to the people around you. Which, come to think of it, is often an outstanding idea. Perhaps in an attempt to best embody this fun and simple paradox, longtime friends of mine planned a "unity shot" of Malört to take place during their ceremony.

As Malört becomes more of a cultural export, it's hard to imagine its identity straying much from the place where it was born. The city of Chicago is host to a collection of environmental, sociological, and governmental woes that should make it endlessly sad about itself…but instead its populace finds a tough resolve, a leathered martyrdom that transforms its illnesses into pride. It's hard to think of a more tangible manifestation of this ethos than Malört.