Unless you’ve lived in Chicago, you probably haven’t heard of Malört. Here, though, it’s legendary. From cocktail lounges to seedy dives, every bar has a bottle of the off-yellow stuff, sometimes hidden below. Malört is legendary for being ferociously bitter and foul tasting. Author and television personality John Hodgman (who is a fan, mind you), describes it as “like a flavored vodka, basically, but flavored with darkness and pain.”
So what is it?
Malört is a Swedish spirit made with wormwood (like absinthe) and flavored with a witches brew of botanicals. It was created and sold in Chicago during the 1930s by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson. A few years ago the company moved production to Florida. Even so, the Chicago area is the only market for Malört. Hell, there’s even a Chicago flag incorporated into the label.
Somehow, as a longtime Chicagoan, I had managed to avoid trying Malört — until this week. Sitting at the bar at Trenchermen, I ordered the Desperate Vesper (Plymouth gin, Lillet Blanc and Malört garnished with orange peel.) Alongside of it, I had three(!) shot glasses of Malört — straight, house-smoked and barrel-aged. The guys at Trenchermen are clearly obsessed.
Before the cocktail, I wanted to try Malört straight. Bracing myself, I shot it down. Now, I’m not trying to be macho but, seriously, it’s not that bad. It’s certainly bitter, but if you like any of the Italian amari, you’re halfway there. And if you’re down with Fernet Branca, you should have no problem with Malört. It’s not as sweet and is rougher around the edges than Fernet, but it’s lighter. It goes down deceptively easy. That’s when the bitter punch hits and keeps hitting. Like Fernet, the aftertaste stays with you for a long time.
The cocktail was terrific — well balanced, and bitter, not unlike a Negroni. The smoked Malört was intriguing. It had a savory, bacon-y thing going on. Strange, but not unpleasant. Finally I moved onto the 15-month, barrel-aged stuff. This looked and smelled more like good bourbon than Malört. It was smooth and mellow, with very little of the harsh, bitter edge that the spirit is known for. Fascinating to compare the three together.
The second stop on my quest for Malörtian knowledge was at nearby Violet Hour, a classic lounge whose talented bartender, Robby Haynes, partnered with local distillery Letherbee to make their own Malört. Haynes happened to be working when I came in and kindly offered me a shot.
Now this had the kick in the throat that I had braced myself for! Haynes certainly didn’t try to make the stuff more palatable to the masses. Not a mere imitation, this Malört is amped up with a higher alcohol content and a much more intense bitter punch. Through the bitterness I could detect some citrus peel, which was missing from the original.
The Thigh High cocktail (Letherbee Autumnal gin, lime, house Malört, Amaro Sibilla, egg white and orange flower water) was delicious, with notes of gin and citrus off the top and a warm bitterness that creeps in seconds later. I also tried a cocktail that’s not currently on the menu. This was Haynes’s take on the Blinker, using bourbon, Malört, lemon, grapefruit and muddled raspberry. I loved this one — bitter on bitter and super refreshing.
I would like to sincerely thank both Wade at Trenchermen and Robby at Violet Hour for making me a fan of Malört. Mayor Emanuel, I’ll take my True Chicagoan patch now.