I’ve got yer bitter right here, pal.

My recent spate of laziness has gotten me behind on lots of linky goodness (including the above which I couldn’t actually link to), which fortunately us always there if I’m too lame to generate original content. Let’s start with what we plan on drinking tonight, but first a little background.

Jeppson MalörtAmong the many wonderful things I’ve learned about from my friend Ted Haigh, there was at least one horrible one, or so I thought at first. Malört is a Swedish-style bitter liqueur (although I’d hesitate to call it an amaro, as it’s very different from Italian liqueurs described as such) based on wormwood; “malört is actually Swedish for wormwood. Unlike absinthe it has no anise flavoring components, or any other spread of botanicals as far as I can tell — this stuff’s pure, whap-you-in-the-face-with-a-large-tree-branch wormwood with all its concomitant bitterness. It is, quite probably, the most bitter thing you will ever pour out of a bottle and into your mouth that’s considered potable and non-poisonous.

It’s Chicago’s native spirit in a way, first distilled by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson and still popular there, especially in the Polish and masochist communities. There are those who keep it in their collections as a test of mettle for their spirit-tippling visitors, or as a source of entertainment. In fact, there’s a whole pool of photos on Flickr entitled Malört face. The faces accurately express most people’s reaction to the liqueur, unsurprising based on the description that was actually printed on the back label (although no longer, apparently):

Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malort 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 Malort. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, ‘My Malort 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! PERSERVERE [sic]. Make it past two ‘shock-glasses’ and with the third you could be ours … forever.

Perhaps they thought that last line sounded a bit too … sinister. They’re not kidding about the lingering, though — the bitterness doesn’t hit you right away, and just as you’re thinking, “Oh hey, this isn’t as bad as you s– oh, JESUS!” Then it hits you and lasts a long, long time, a true everlasting gobstopper.

Dr. Cocktail also noted in the spirit’s CocktailDB entry that “it has been adopted enthusiastically by bikers and is a mainstay at biker bars.” I have no doubt of this, as I can see these guys using it to prove their manliness. Doc also notes an underlying flavor behind the unrelenting bitterness that he calls “eau de dill pickle.”

All that said … I kinda like the stuff.

It’s really not that bad — after the first time I never made the face, and although I don’t drink it often I will agree that it is bracingly, even violently bitter. I’ve never thought so far to try it in a serious cocktail, though, but a few inventive Chicago bartenders are way ahead of me.

Today’s issue of the Chicago Reader has a feature on Malört, and how it’s evolved past a practical joke, test of mettle or ingredient in intentionally foul cocktails into a serious cocktail ingredient. If you can balance the bitterness with other ingredients, you might just be on to something, as these guys are.

Brad Bolt, bartender at Bar DeVille in Chicago (a very cool guy whom I met when he visited L.A. last year) came up with the drink that’ll be our tipple this evening, which even comes along with a video showing him in Malört-slinging action. The proportions and makeup of this make me think of a Last Word (or a Final Ward, given that it’s lemon); this could be a signature drink for one of my favorite cities.

The Hard Sell
(Created by Brad Bolt, Bar DeVille, Chicago)

3/4 ounce Beefeater Gin.
3/4 ounce Jeppson Malört.
3/4 ounce St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur.
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice.
Large grapefruit peel.
Combine in a shaker with ice and shake for 10-12 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express as much oil as you can out of the grapefruit peel onto the surface of the drink, but do not garnish with the peel.

Here are a couple other Malört creations from Chicago bartenders that we’ll try within the next few days:

The Ukrainian Negroni
(Created by Toby Maloney, The Violet Hour)

2 ounces Tanqueray Gin.
1-1/2 ounces Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.
1/4 ounce Campari.
1/4 ounce Jeppson Malört.

Combine in a mixing glass with ice and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a coupe, and flame an orange peel over the drink.


The Bukowski
(Created by Charles Joly, The Drawing Room)

1-1/2 ounces Jeppson Malört.
1/2 ounce Drambuie.
3/4 ounce fresh orange juice.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.
3/4 ounce honey syrup (made 1:1 with water).
3-5 basil leaves.

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake for 10-12 seconds and strain over rocks into an Old Fashioned glass.(Rather aptly named, I think, even if Bukowski never drank the stuff himself. The Reader adds, “The working name for this drink was the Dirty Old Man, after the column Charles Bukowski once wrote for an underground newspaper in Los Angeles. Joly says there.s no garnish because the writer would have just thrown it back at the bartender.”)


The Golden Eel
(Created by Paul McGee, The Whistler)

1-1/2 ounces Beefeater Gin.
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.
1/2 ounce Jeppson Malört.
Orange peel.

Build over ice in an Old Fashioned glass and garnish with the orange peel.


Michigan Cutter
(Created by Stephen Cole, The Violet Hour)

1 ounce Jeppson Malört.
1 ounce Amaro Montenegro.
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice.
1/2 ounce simple syrup.
Dash orange bitters.
1 egg white.

Combine all ingredients except 7Up in a shaker. Dry-shake (without ice) to emulsify egg white. Add ice. Shake. Strain into a short nine-ounce water glass. Top with 7UP.

You can mail-order Jeppson Malört from Sam’s Wine in Chicago (which since seeing their URL for the first time I cannot stop calling “Sam Swine”). It’s only $15 — such a bargain for such a … ahem, sensual experience!