When else has a city said both “this defines us” and “this is terrible” about the same drink?
My friend Matt, a seasoned New York City bartender, recently experienced a unique form of culture shock. 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, he was constantly serving, and being asked to drink, shots of something called Jeppson’s Malört. He had never heard of it and, oddly contrary to the enthusiasm with which it was summoned, it tasted awful.
Malört occupies the rare air of popular city-specific beverages that both connote pride and are widely accepted 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 drinkable thing? Malört is often described as “citrus-flavored gasoline,” “the regional prank beverage,” “burnt vinyl carseat condensation,” “the vile flower liquor,” “pure peer pressure,” “the bad thing,” “hipster virtue-signaling juice” and definitely lots of other things, too—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 a liquor made from potatoes, grains or wood cellulose. Malört itself has only wormwood—a bitter, parasite-killing herb that is also the main ingredient in absinthe—as a flavor-giving ingredient. It tastes far too funky to consistently fill the traditional role of a cordial digestif, taken after dinner, that its chemical relatives exist for.
Carl Jeppson was a Chicago cigar shop owner who began selling his concoction to businesses and citizens, often out of a suitcase on the sidewalk, during Prohibition. Because of its unpleasant sensation, Malört was easily masked as a medicine. Jeppson’s current director of marketing Sam Mechling says that when police officers would take Jeppson aside to interrogate the legality of his business model, he would offer them a shot 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, and the extreme kick to the mouth that is Malört 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—like Franz Kafka and Vincent van Gogh before him, Jeppson never got to experience much of the financial success of his magic, but his personality was tied tightly enough to what he’d created that not using his moniker to help sell it has never been much of a consideration for the company that outlived him.
In the several decades following the end of the prohibition that made Chicagoans thirsty enough for such an elaborate, uncouth workaround liquid, Malört lived in relative anonymity. As a Chicago insider’s drinking secret it remained a healthy business, but not a massive one. In the 1970s, the Jeppson’s factory in Chicago relocated to Florida, where the liquor’s production remains headquartered today. This is still the case in spite of the massive increase in Chicago sales over the past decade or so. Mechling says that since around 2008—which is when Malört became the stuff of memes, essentially—business for Jeppson’s has expanded tenfold. 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 about the liquor that has only grown since.
This growth has been significant enough that a trademark battle has been had 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 trademarked the word in 2013. Neither distillery fought the trademark; Letherbee now calls theirs Bësk, while FEW cheekily calls theirs Anguish and Regret. Both derivatives are part of the small, admirable movement to make Malört a more palatable ingredient within pricier cocktails. Pilsen’s Tack Room has one of these called a “Corpse Reviver”; Logan Square’s Cafe Mustache has one called “Surprisingly Good,” drenched in the increasingly less secret, make-Malört-good counterpoint that is grapefruit juice.
As it has exploded in Chicago, Malört has become incrementally more available in other parts of the country. Enthusiasts have created an online Malört Map to show where it is available, with a dense cluster of pins in Chicago and a few sprinkles of them elsewhere. (The map is incomplete: I have had Malört in Denver, recently, at a bar and restaurant called Sputnik, and have also been told that it’s available at Erv’s bar in Brooklyn, where a friend had to point demonstrably at the bottle when he spotted it and explain to his bartender what it was).
Hardcore Malört lovers in Chicago 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 cult and obscurity from mainstream, widely shared enjoyment. Near this line is where non-believers accuse Malörtophiles of championing the liquor just to appear contrary and unique, but of course, no one can ever prove why someone else actually likes something, or know how anything tastes to someone else, or create a terribly clear distinction between liking drinking for its chemical value and liking it for its social value.
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 alcohol so potently carries the subtext—which is sometimes just text—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, which is a bad idea, so to feel closer to the people around you, which is an outstanding idea. Perhaps in an attempt to best embody this fun and simple paradox, longtime friends of mine who are soon to wed are planning a “unity shot” of Malört for during their ceremony.
As Malört becomes more of a cultural export—its infectious qualities spreading to more and more places full of people emboldened by the informational supernetwork of the internet to maximize their niche interests—it is 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.