If you’ve never been to Chicago, there is a good chance you’ve never heard about Jeppson’s Malört. It is a distinctly Chicago drink with roughly 90% being consumed in Cook county. As a recent transplant to the Windy City, I thought I’d write my first review at Thirty One Whiskey in honor of my new home.
In the 1930’s, Carl Jeppson immigrated to Chicago from Sweden and brought with him his bitter brew, selling it door to door for medicinal and other purposes. Malört is a bäsk liquor, which is a liquor spiced and flavored with wormwood. The word bäsk is an older spelling of “besk”, which translates to “bitter”.
Carl Jeppson produced and sold Malört until eventually selling the original recipe to George Brode, who purchased many liquor recipes for his in-law’s family business, D.J. Bielzoff Products. Eventually, Brode sold D.J. Bielzoff Products, but retained the rights to produce Malört and formed the Carl Jeppson Co. In 2018, Malört was sold to CH Distillery.
As the rights to produce Malört changed hands multiple times, the location where it was distilled also changed. It was produced in Chicago until the mid-1970s, when production was briefly moved to Kentucky before being produced in Florida for many years. When CH Distillery purchased the rights to Malört, distilling was moved back to Chicago’s East Pilson neighborhood.
CH Distillery makes multiple spirts under the “CH” brand including a Bourbon, Vodka, and London Dry Gin.
As a liqueur, there really aren’t many governing rules about how this can be made or how it is flavored.
In this specific case, the alcohol content comes from a neutral grain spirit (a good, cheap base that is mass produced and widely used by other liqueurs). The only manufacturing process that sets this apart from something like Everclear is the use of wormwood to provide some flavoring to the spirit. Once appropriately flavored, sugar is added and the spirit is bottled and shipped.
It’s an incredibly boring bottle design: a very basic round bottle with a plastic twist off lid.
The label uses a yellow and red color scheme that tends to get lost in the amber color of the liquor. It features a shield inspired by Chicago’s flag (not the current flag with 4 stars, but the 1933 flag with only 3 stars). The back of the bottle has a small label that states: “Jeppson Malört has the aroma and full-bodied flavor of an unusual botanical. Its bitter taste is favored by two-fisted drinkers”. This is an abridged version of their original claim that also included the potential warning “the taste just lingers and lasts – seemingly forever”.
The light amber liquid has a very mild and unassuming notes, similar to what you might expect from a delicate whiskey or reposado tequila. It’s very unassuming for a liquor that has online galleries dedicated to “Malört Face” and has been compared to drinking gasoline.
The first sip feels like a punch in the face. Long gone are those ‘mild and assuming’ notes from the aroma. There is no other description that fits here other than extreme bitterness that lingers. Remember when I said that bäsk is an older spelling of “besk”, which translates to “bitter”? Well, it’s been 15 minutes, and I can still only taste bitterness.
After recovering from the first sip, I was ready to brave another. Obviously, its still punch-you-in-the-face bitter — but knowing what to expect does help to open up more flavors. And surprisingly, it actually starts with a slightly sweet, citrusy note at the tip of the tongue. It’s only there for a second, though, before the bitterness overwhelms.
Most commonly, Malört is part of a quintessential Second City drink pairing – the Chicago Handshake. This is a slang term for a shot of Jeppson’s Malört paired with a Heileman’s Old Style beer.
As is normally the case, ice will mellow out the spirit. In this case, though, the ice is performing a small miracle.
It’s still bitter, but is much more subdued and actually allows additional flavors to emerge. The sweetness is now more pronounced, with notes of grapefruit, and a complex botanical flavor. The finish is still very bitter and will linger, but if you choose to sip Malört (for whatever godforsaken reason)… this is definitely the way to go.
Cocktail (Soul Transfusion)
Since it is more of a liqueur, Malört does not have many cocktail recipes where it stands alone as the primary spirt. So instead, I tried to find an interesting drink where the bitter drink can really shine. I found this in the Soul Transfusion: a cocktail with rye bourbon, Malört, all-spice dram, falernum, and a twist of lemon.
This drink can be best described as a bitter sazerac, and I am shocked at how well all the ingredients balance each other out. While it only contains a half ounce of Malört, that’s still the star in this drink. The ice brings out the grapefruit notes and the bitterness is balanced well with the all-spice and falernum.
If Chicago has an unofficial mascot, it’s Jeppson’s Malört. Truly, what better mascot than one that tastes like licking the handrail in the Red Line? I mean, the original full-length text on the back of the bottle said, “Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate.” While I do not imagine that you would want to drink Malört regularly, it’s best as a shot — and preferably with a good chaser.
Illinois, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 35% ABV
Price: $19.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
It does what it says on the package… which might not be such a great idea.