The new buzz word is Malört. Last week, my friends and I had a comical email exchange about this infamous Chicago liquor given its recent high-profile coverage in The Wall Street Journal article, "In Chicago, a Spirit Rises Despite Bitter Reviews."
My friend, a lifelong Chicagoan, received his first bottle of Jeppson's Malört as a gift more than ten years ago. So as you can imagine, Malort's increasing popularity among bartenders and 20-somethings has some Chicagoans proudly saying that they've supported this unpalatable spirit all along.
The almost absurdly honest testimonial that once appeared on every bottle says it all:
"Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malört reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate.
During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malört. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, ‘My Malört is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.' It is not possible to forget our two-fisted liquor. The taste just lingers and lasts - seemingly forever. The first shot is hard to swallow! PERSEVERE. Make it past two ‘shock-glasses' and with the third you could be ours... forever."
Despite its popular use as a punishment shot, Malört, a Swedish-style liquor made from the wormwood plant (also used in making absinthe), is finding its way on to a growing list of cocktail menus.
So why the interest? Master bartenders have found it a compelling challenge to integrate Malört into a tasty cocktail. Check out Sarah Freeman's "Bitter Booze Trend" Malört cocktail round-up for Zagat. The cocktail names are my favorite, particularly the "I'm Not Drinking That" cocktail at Sepia and the "Desperate Vesper" at Trenchermen.
But it's the Violet Hour, in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, that's taking it one-step further by creating its own house Malört. Bar manager Robbie Haynes perfected his custom Malört collaboration with Letherbee Distillers by removing the medicinal flavor of Jeppson's and adding grapefruit peel, juniper, elderflower, star anise and other botanicals to enhance its legendary bitterness. It's the only house Malört available. The new cocktail is called "Thigh High" and is made with Letherbee Gin, R. Franklin's Original Recipe Malört, honey, lemon and egg white.
The Violet Hour, which was nominated for its outstanding bar program by the James Beard Foundation, delivers an autumn menu that is definitely more edgy, with several bitter drinks, green walnut wine, and of course, the house Malört.
Before you refine your palate, you may consider indoctrinating yourself into the Chicago community with the real deal. Jeppson's Malört is a staple on the menu at
The Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, where former patron Al Capone's heyday is memorialized in photographs and artifacts on the bar walls. Owner Dave Jemillo says, "We like to drink a shot of Malört and a bottle of Schlitz."