Chicago is nothing if not unique — long known as America’s “Second City” (behind NYC, one presumes — although arguably it could have long since been demoted to “Third City” behind LA), it also claims the shores of Lake Michigan as the Third Coast. To Chicago do we owe such world-changing inventions as spray paint and Twinkies (via Culture Trip), and it’s also the site of the world’s only backwards-running river (a triumph of engineering, not a freak of nature).
One question that has long beset Frank Sinatra fans, amongst others, is, what, exactly, makes Chicago a “toddlin’ town?” Well, we think we might have figured it out. What’s got all those Chicagoans toddling, if not downright tipping over, is the fact that they’re probably the only people on earth who willingly consume that hellbrew known as Jeppson’s Malört, or just Malört (or @%##&%@ Malört) for short. While the product’s website says this liqueur “has the aroma and full-bodied flavor of an unusual botanical,” others describe it in … rather more colorful terms (none of them flattering).
Malört's taste is… umm, unique
Malört is flavored with wormwood, an herb also found in absinthe. So Malört ‘s similar to absinthe? Gizmodo gives a qualified maybe … absinthe without sugar cubes, ice, or other additives, or “the most disgusting liquor of all time … a harsh, extremely unpalatable beverage with an hour-long bitter aftertaste.” Thrillist compares it to “drinking pesticide,” while Chicago calls it “a challenge to drink” with an “undefinable unsavoriness.”
Even the brand itself admits that the flavor is, well, an acquired taste: the original bottle labeled its contents “rugged and unrelenting,” while the current one goes with “bitter taste … savored by two-fisted drinkers.” Other comments quoted by Chicago include “the liquid equivalent of a Chicago winter,” “pencil shavings and heartbreak,” “a burnt condom full of gas,” and “baby aspirin wrapped in a grapefruit peel, bound with rubber bands and then soaked in well gin.” (This last description comes from Malört’s marketing director!)
Twitter, of course, has plenty to say about Malört. Users describe it as tasting like “jet fuel,” “bandaids,” “the 2021 Bears,” “driving through Peoria with your mouth open,” “grapefruit and burnt rubber,” “like licking a permanent marker that’s been soaking in gin,” and “the underside of the devils infected b***sack” (this last commenter admitted to serving the stuff as a practical joke). A rare positive(ish) comment came from someone with Chicago Detours: they compared it to ” a good amaro, like Fernet,” but allowed they still didn’t like it.
Malört was an early adapter of negative marketing
No publicity is bad publicity, so if you’ve got the rep as the grossest booze known to mankind, you might as well lean into it, right? And that’s exactly what Malört has been doing throughout its entire existence. Thrillist published an early piece of advertising merch giving the brand’s backstory, ending with the admission that “The taste just lingers and lasts — seemingly forever,” adding “The first shot is hard to swallow.” They nevertheless advise perseverance, as well as the optimistic belief that all it takes is three shots of Malört before “you could be ours … forever.”
In more recent years, they’ve switched to a more self-deprecating tone rather than continuing to threaten drinkers with such a dire fate. In fact, they’ve taken to adopting social media-sourced fan slogans, including the following gems: “Malört, the Champagne of pain,” “Malört, turning taste-buds into taste-foes for generations,” “Malört, what soap washes its mouth out with,” and “Malört, when you need to unfriend someone IN PERSON.”
Malört's origins predate Prohibition
So who/why/how did anyone ever come up with such a beverage? While Malört is a true Chicago original, it does have European roots, as it was invented by a Swedish immigrant named Carl Jeppson (hence the first part of the brand’s name). So what was Herr Jeppsen’s deal? Did he hate mankind, or just Chicago in particular? No, it seems (via Thrillist) that the man had been a tobacco store owner and had very little sense of smell or taste left so he actually did enjoy his own creation.
The Malört website reveals that this beverage was originally marketed as medicinal bitters, which allowed it to be sold throughout Prohibition. In fact, they outright admit the fact that “Jeppson was able to “skirt… federal regulation given the recurring conclusion by law enforcement that nobody would drink his concoction recreationally.”
While they (maybe) revamped the formula to be less medicinal/more boozy in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, they never did change the Chicago flag on the label. Yes, that crest right above the name shows the three stars of the Chicago flag circa the 1930s. While the city added a fourth star in 1939, Malört retained its original logo.
There are even Malört-flavored foods
Malört face is a well-known phenomenon, and it looks pretty much exactly as you’d expect. (You can check out a few hundred examples in the Flickr Malört Face photo pool.) Malört Face is also the name of a band (of course), but it’s also a hot sauce made by Soothsayer. Although it doesn’t contain any actual Malört, the sauce is made with ghost peppers and grapefruit in order to mimic the “bitter, sweet, and heat” of its notorious eponym.
While a somewhat Malört-esque hot sauce may not be such a stretch, since hot sauces, particularly ones containing ghost peppers, are often meant to evoke a certain “face” of their own, it may come as somewhat more of a surprise to know that Chicago-area coffee shops often use this booze to infuse their brews. Barstool Sports tried a Malört-flavored canned cold brew and, go figure, they actually liked it.
Even weirder, however, are the fact that Malört marshmallows (via XO Marshmallow) also exist, as does Malört ice cream (via the Milwaukee Record). I scream, you scream, who wouldn’t scream at the thought? Then again, maybe dessert isn’t really fattening when there’s little to no possibility that you could actually enjoy it.
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