SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
About 12 days ago, the folks at Chowhound sent me an email. They wanted to do a story about a Chicago drink, Malort, and they asked me if I had any interest in writing it. Flattered, I expressed my interest, but confessed that I had no experience with the spirit (and you call yourself a Chicagoan?), and the only story I could tell was one that chronicled my first indulgence. I figured there would be little interest. I was wrong.
Before we move on, I have to qualify something. Despite never trying Malort, I really am a Chicago guy. There are some Chicago-born characters who might take issue with that statement because of my Skokie upbringing, claiming I’m from the ‘burbs or some nonsense like that. But Skokie isn’t exactly Galena (which is lovely). It’s a bordering suburb. I could be in Edgebrook or West Rogers Park in about five minutes, Wildwood, Edison Park, or Sauganash in 10, and (depending on traffic) Logan Square, Andersonville, Jefferson Park, and Norwood Park in 15. We didn’t have driveways where I lived. We had alleys where the junk man would ride through twice a day looking to turn someone else’s trash into treasure. I wasn’t on a cul de sac. My street wasn’t a part of a subdivision. I lived on a grid-style block with a mixture of homes built at different times, including ranches, colonials, split-levels, and bungalows. We didn’t take the Metra to go downtown. We used the good, old CTA. You could look down my street as you took the yellow line to Howard, or you could jump on the trusty 97 bus about two blocks from my front door. Skokie might be a suburb, but it’s more like an extension of the city—just ask my Naperville-native wife who claims I didn’t live in an actual suburb. And if all that isn’t enough, I’ve been an official Chicago resident for almost six years, and worked on the South Side for five and a half. Like I said, I’m a Chicago guy.
As a Chicago guy, I pride myself on knowing about Chicago stuff: sports, culture, neighborhoods, history, directions, and, of course, food. But I’ll be darned, I had never paid much attention to Malort. I’m not really a big drinker, only sparingly using the stuff. When I do, I stick to beer, wine, the occasional Old Fashioned, or the pina colada served at the Scottsdale Tommy Bahama Restaurant. What can I say? I know what I like. While initially disappointed in myself for not knowing much about something so classically Chicago, I did what any self-respecting Chicago guy would do. I moved on from the disappointment and set out to acquaint myself with it.
First, I did a little reading. Apparently, Malort has roots in Sweden, evolving from a medicinal elixir concocted from grain or potato alcohol, and wormwood to help treat indigestion. As the Swedes migrated to America, a large swath of them settled in Chicago, and they brought bits and pieces of the homeland with them, including elements of this drink. As a brief aside, Clark Street in the aforementioned Andersonville neighborhood is where you’ll find a large Swedish-American presence, including Chicago’s very own Swedish American Museum. Anyway, during prohibition times, one such Swede, Carl Jeppson, started making his own version of a wormwood liqueur. Why he did this, and how the drink ended up tasting like it does, is up for some speculation. One story suggests Jeppson had such a tobacco-damaged mouth that he could hardly taste, and he needed an intensely bitter drink in order to taste it at all. The more popular tale, and the one told by Jeppson’s Malort itself, is that he needed a drink he could successfully sell in prohibition-era Chicago. As legend goes, Carl Jeppson made a drink that could successfully pass as medicine (perhaps due to its roots in Sweden). This allowed him to sell it door-to-door without raising too much suspicion. Additionally, if he ever was stopped by the police, all he had to do was offer them a swig, and they’d agree that no one would ever recreationally drink the stuff. Wait. What now? That’s right, it was either incredibly bitter so as to be tasted by a man with little sense of taste and/or so bad that it passed for medicine because no one would choose to drink it for fun. Oh dear. I have to try this stuff now?! What did I sign up for?!?!
This couldn’t be true, could it? It couldn’t be that bad. Why would it still exist if it were that bad? After digging a little deeper, I saw the links in my Google search for Malort. Disgusting. Bad-tasting. Worst-tasting. I read article after article that said Malort was the most vile drink there is. Google “Malort face” and you’ll see countless pictures and videos of folks with looks of disgust after having just sipped some. I was getting nervous. To write this article, I’d need to try this allegedly disgusting drink. Why did I do this to myself? Curse my pride! Note to self: Next time you’re asked to write a piece on a food or drink you’ve never tried, look up the item before, BEFORE you agree, not after.
I needed to calm down. I wondered if all this online hype could be overblown. To find out, I posted a status on Facebook explaining my predicament, and asking for thoughts and advice. Where do I buy it? What can I expect? Maybe word on the street is different. Wrong. The first post mentioned something about always visiting the bathroom after ingesting Malort. The second post was simply a poison emoji. Grumble, grumble.
Then, a glimmer of hope appeared: My soon-to-be brother-in-law (STBBIL) posted that he actually liked the stuff. And before the reply questioning his integrity, or the simple, but focused message “don’t do it” rolled in, I thought to myself, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.” Since he had just proposed to my wife’s sister, we decided to have them over for dinner to celebrate their news—and talk Malort.
I made a tremendous ziti, which is a subject for another time, talked about the proposal, and got the rundown of any preliminary wedding thoughts. All was well. Then, my soon-to-be brother-in-law changed the subject. “When are you gonna try Malort?” he asked. I’ll admit, I got a little nervous just considering it. I asked him what his experience was with it. I asked him where I should go. I asked him if it was really that bad. He pushed to go out after dinner and get some shots, but I balked at the suggestion. I wasn’t ready. I asked if I should just get a bottle, and he told me to get to a bar. My sister-in-law chimed in, “It’s the kind of drink you get for your friend as a prank. She thinks she’s getting a shot like everyone else, but hers is Malort.”
My eyes got big. I thought about the worst thing I had ever imbibed, apple cider vinegar, and asked my STBBIL if Malort was better or worse. He told me he had never had apple cider vinegar and asked for a swig. I poured him a shot (maybe two) and handed it to him. He took one hit. No reaction. Then he went back and finished it off. Still, no reaction. Homeric! Impressed, I asked him, “Well, is it better or worse?” He replied, “Malort tastes worse, overall. The apple cider vinegar might be worse upfront, but the taste dissipates and disappears within 30 seconds. With Malort, its bitterness grows and stays with you for a while.” Worse than apple cider vinegar?! I couldn’t believe it.
My lacking desire to subject myself to a drink someone likened to drinking gasoline with grapefruit juice led to me put off trying the drink for the next few days. Heck, I ran it by one of my best friends and he told me I’d never make it past a sip. The day before my story was due, I still hadn’t tried it. As a result, I tried to put something together with my sister-in-law and her fiance. They really wanted to see me experience Malort. Unfortunately, the spot we picked was booked, so I made the call to forego the public display, buy a bottle, and try it at home. After consulting the Malort map (it’s a real thing), I located it at Printer’s Row Wine Shop, walked in, and asked for a bottle. Expecting a reaction, the helpful clerk turned to a shelf behind the counter, pulled a bottle, placed it on the counter, and asked, “Anything else?” No smile. No grimace. No reaction at all. It’s as if I asked for a Malbec, or a nice bourbon. Ever hopeful, I thought for a brief moment, “Maybe I’ll be okay.”
When I got home, I placed the specimen on the counter. I looked at the bottle, and it looked back at me. Still procrastinating, I started to cook dinner. I decided I needed my wife to come home to lend emotional support before I took a hit. Soon enough, she did. Once she popped through that door, the clock started. I knew it was only a matter of time. I knew my life was about to change.
As my meatloaf was cooking in the oven, and while my wife was sitting on the couch with our son (who was watching the dreaded “Finger Family Song”), I readied a shot. Since I’m not a drinker, and, really, neither is my wife, we don’t have any shot glasses in the house. So, I found the only thing appropriate enough to house a shot—an espresso mug. I unscrewed the plastic cap to the Malort (odd), and poured myself a shot. I took a whiff. It had an unassuming nose. I looked at my wife, and said, “This is it. Do you want to take a picture?” She replied, “I think I should take a video.” I handed over my phone, and she queued it up. Confirming that she was ready, I asked her to smell the shot. Surprisingly, she did, and then predicted my taste test would not go well. I again confirmed that she was ready, and then…down the hatch.
I waited. Then waited some more. Then waited a little more. Relieved, I looked around and shrugged my shoulders. Nothing happened. My hair didn’t fall out, my taste buds weren’t singed off, my gag reflex wasn’t triggered, and, perhaps most importantly, my face was not contorted. Make no mistake: It’s a strong drink, and there is a growing bitterness that hits about 20 seconds after downing the shot. That being said, there was nothing that repulsive about it. In fact, I can confidently say the following two things: 1) Apple cider vinegar is way worse than Malort; and 2) I’ve had IPAs that were more offensive. Really, the only thing I had an issue with was some reflux about 20 minutes later. But that passed once I ate dinner. All things considered, my trepidation proved to be much ado about nothing, and I was left to ponder what it all meant.
In earlier days of Malort production, Jeppson’s included a label on the bottle cautioning that only one in 49 men would find the drink palatable enough to consume. These days, the label reads that it’s a drink fit for two-fisted drinkers. Either way, the implication is that most won’t be able to handle Malort as it is only for the strongest among us. This challenge, so to speak, is what’s kept Malort going all these years. Chicago is a great town, but it also can be tough. From its weather and its politics, to its competitive edge, Chicago is full of superlatives. It revels in being the best, the grittiest, or the most. It really doesn’t matter what it is. Even a drink like Malort. Most disgusting? Still counts. Because the flip-side is that it is the toughest drink to swallow, and insofar as it is the toughest drink to swallow, only the toughest can handle it. This, more than anything else, may be why Malort has managed to stay alive in the Windy City all these years (Chicago is responsible for about 90% of Jeppson’s consumption).
Sure, it might be funny to prank a friend expecting a shot of Jager with a shot of Malort, and capture his Malort face, or corner an unsuspecting out-of-towner with a welcome-to-Chicago shot, but it’s what Malort stands for, I think, that’s kept it going. Originality. Toughness. Resilience. While I dreaded trying it, I’m glad I did. It wasn’t bad at all, and it actually taught me that sometimes our fears exist only because we allow them to. Plus, I’ve now filled that hole in my Chicago guy credentials. Ah, Chicago. It really is my kind of town.
Header image courtesy of Inside Hook.