Ever enjoy the ritual of absinthe tasting? You combine sugar cubes, fire, and ice water to make the licorice-flavored beverage palatable. What if absinthe lacked any of these interesting additives? You would be left with malört — a harsh, extremely unpalatable beverage with an hour-long bitter aftertaste.
Despite its revolting taste, malört enjoys a cult following. How does the beverage endure to this day?
It came from ... Sweden!
Malört is a variation of the Swedish liquor brännvin. Brännvin is a clear, 70-80 proof unflavored beverage made from potatoes or grain — sort of like slightly diluted vodka or unflavored schnapps. Malört gives drinkers the honor of sending their taste buds to Sweden, but with wormwood as carry on luggage.
The wormwood infused form of brännvin is known for it's absurd mix of flavor combinations. Malört enters with a citrous taste and exits with the opposite - a lingering bitterness. Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant, is responsible for bringing malört to the United States, and particularly, the city of Chicago, where the drink has its largest following.
Malört, the tastebud assassin
Jeppson first created his distinct Swedish liquor during the prohibition era, with his malört becoming a commercial product a decade later. Carl embraced the bizarre and disgusting flavor of malört, deeming the beverage an alternative liquor for those who "Disdain light flavor or neutral spirits."
Carl Jeppson died in 1949, but prior to that, Carl sold the recipe for the liquor to Chicago area liquor magnate and lawyer George Brode. Under Brode's care, each bottle of Jeppson's malört included a stem of wormwood and an "Are you man enough?" label attached to the bottle.
At the time of his death in 1999, Brode left the company to his secretary, Patricia Gabelick. Gabelick currently runs the company, which has had several of its best years financially thanks to a recent resurrection of Jeppson's Malört as a novelty liquor.
Due to financial considerations and low sales (Jeppson's Malört sells roughly a thousand cases a year, with bottles retailing for $20 a pop), a couple of changes have been made to the malört manufacturing process.
The Jeppson's brand is now distilled and bottled in Florida, and bottles no longer contain a twig of wormwood dancing at the bottom of the bottle. The beverage is still infused with wormwood, enough to leave a distinct, bitter aftertaste long after a shot passes down the throat.
Malört vs. Absinthe
The presence of wormwood in malört brings to mind a connection of absinthe, but malört lacks any of the psychedelic attributes of absinthe. While both beverages contain wormwood, malört does not contain thujone, the key ingredient in absinthe that leads to low level hallucinations.
Like absinthe, tradition dictates that malort is supposed to be consumed with a sugar cube (one placed in the drinker's mouth), but current practices revolve around downing a shot of malört by itself and attempting to ward off a face contorting expression.
The expression arises due to the initial citrus taste of malört followed by the bitterness of the wormwood — roughly the same look one makes when following up a glass of pulpy orange juice with the routine of brushing their teeth.
Trick your friends!
Jeppson's Malört enjoys a large following in Chicago bars, with bar-goers using it for tricks or to show off their ability to stomach a not so friend shot.
If you live outside the Chicagoland area and are unable to find a commercial Malört, you can make a slightly tamer version by adding a twig of wormwood (or wormwood extract) to watered down vodka.
Why one would do this, I'm not sure, but it would no lead to some mischievous moments with dinner guests.