BATTERY ACID. GASOLINE. Floor cleaner.
Or, as Brooke Harrison, bartender at the Black Cat bar in downtown Seattle describes it, “an evil rotten grapefruit with a Band-Aid.”
The taste is vile. The drink is Malört.
If you’ve had Malört, you probably are grinning evilly right now, remembering with savage schadenfreude the last time you dared one of your friends to try a sip. If you’ve never had Malört, you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to write about a libation that is more “industrial engine cleaner” than “fine spirit.” The answer, dear readers, is because people love it.
Malört, or Jeppson’s Malört, is a digestif liqueur flavored entirely with the herb wormwood (the same herb said to give Absinthe its hallucinogenic kick). Malört is produced — and primarily consumed — in Chicago, where the residents are as proud of the bitter liquor as they are of their biting winters. According to its own website, Jeppson’s Malört was first produced by a Swedish immigrant named Carl Jeppson during Prohibition and sold as “medicinal alcohol,” its acrid taste supposedly making the case that a person would drink it only if he had to. Local legend says that Jeppson himself actually enjoyed its unique flavor because years of smoking meant it was one of the only things he could taste.
Harrison suggests that if you must mix it with something, mix it with grapefruit juice or club soda, though most drink it as a shot — possibly to get it over with.
The word “malört” is Swedish for “wormwood,” a frizzy herb that looks like spiky parsley, and the drink is what is referred to as a besk brännvin (Swedish for “burnt wine, or less literally but more accurately, “bitter distilled spirit”). First brewed as a digestif during the Middle Ages, the wormwood in Malört supposedly will kill stomach parasites, which, if you’ve tasted Malört, should not surprise you. I think it tastes like water that’s had old tires soaking in it, with a hint of nuclear grapefruit on the back of your palate and strong notes of nail polish remover in the nose.
For people from Chicago, Malört is a rite of passage, a test of drinking prowess and/or a dare. I first had Malört at a party, when a friend from Chicago brought a bottle of it to the cocktail table as a prank. And the folks at Jeppson’s Malört are unapologetically proud of this reputation: The label claims, “Its bitter taste is savored by two-fisted drinkers.”
Up until recently, you could get the stuff only in the Chicago area, where it was produced by a single family-owned company, but the brand sold in 2018 to the CH Distillery (still located in Chicago), and it’s slightly more available now. In Seattle, you can find it at the Black Cat Bar downtown (2132 First Ave.). Before the sale, according to Harrison, bars in Seattle that wanted to carry it had to buy it in Chicago and ship it here, or physically carry it into the state. Now, Black Cat has it on tap for $7/shot.
And people are drinking it.
“I sell at least one every shift,” says Harrison. If you get a group of people from Chicago, it sells itself.”