Jeppson’s, the distiller who is responsible for Malort (also referred to as “The Champagne of Pain”) has released a bourbon. Given their previous track record of flavor profiles, I am not excited about this one — but I feel duty bound as a whiskey reviewer to check out a bourbon from a company that advertises their flagship product as “tonight’s the night you fight your dad”.
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”.
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 he retained the rights to produce Malört and formed the Carl Jeppson Co. In 2018, Malört was then 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 (as we are reviewing today), vodka, and London Dry gin.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
First things first: Jeppson’s doesn’t actually make this bourbon. At least, not in the sense of distilling the raw materials into spirits. Instead, like most smaller distilleries, they source a selection of spirits from other distilleries and blend them together to create a flavor profile that meets their needs.
The bad news is that, as a result, this isn’t actually “made” in Chicago; specifically, this is a blend of Indiana and Tennessee straight whiskies. This is good news if you ask me — it should, theoretically, be much less likely to taste like its locally sourced brother.
As a bourbon, this is required to use a minimum of 51% corn in the sourced grains. According to Jeppson’s, the combined grain bill for this bottle averages out to 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% barley. Those grains are cooked, fermented, and distilled to create a raw spirit that is then placed into a new charred oak barrel for maturation.
Once those spirits are produced and aged for at least four years at their respective sources, the barrels are imported into Indiana and blended to produce the bottle we see here today. The finished product is bottled at a scorching 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume).
This looks exactly like their Malort bottle, only with a different label and a black plastic screw-on topper.
The label uses nearly the same label as their Malort product, with the only change being a slightly darker color palette. The yellow is darkened to more of a khaki and is still paired with the red highlights. It features a blue shield inspired by Chicago’s flag (not the current flag with 4 stars, but the 1933 flag with only 3 stars — they’ll be damned if they ever recognize the Century of Progress World’s Fair, apparently). The back of the bottle has a small label indicating the minimum aging and that the product is blended.
Considering the fact that Malort is more light in color than the brown-amber bourbon, it makes sense to adjust to a darker color scheme for the labeling. I don’t love it, but will concede it’s consistent with their brand while also being complementary to the color of the bourbon itself.
I do appreciate that they are forthcoming about what’s in the bottle — right on the front of the label it says in clear lettering that this is a “Blend of Straight Whiskies”. Some distilleries would try to hide that fact, but Jeppson’s is up front with that disclaimer.
The first thing I notice is a very spicy aroma on the nose — which, to me, spells trouble. It smells like it’s going to go down rough. Under that spice, there is a note of sweetness mixed with a funk that can be best described as the dead fish smell you might get by a lake.
The taste is not as terrible as I feared, but it’s not great either. There are common bourbon notes prominent: brown sugar, caramel, vanilla… but there’s an associated bitterness that is ruining whatever flavors might be present. Not a strong bitterness (certainly, not even close to the bitterness that their Malort product is known for), but a general bitterness that dulls the flavors and creates a bland finish.
The surprising-but-welcome news is that despite the high proof, there isn’t a distinct alcohol burn on the finish after you’ve swallowed your sip.
I was hoping that the ice might work some small miracles with the flavor. Alas, it did the exact opposite of what I wanted.
The goal here is to turn down the bitterness while (hopefully) accentuating the good flavors within the spirit. Instead the caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla flavors all are significantly reduced, allowing that bitterness to run rampant and unchecked on the flavor profile and more of that spicy black pepper note to develop.
The one benefit of adding ice is that the gentle burn of the aftertaste is almost gone. This leads to some hopeful promise in the cocktail space – maybe, just maybe this bourbon will hold it’s own in a mixed drink.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Okay… so this isn’t bad. It’s not as good as I was hoping for, but it’s a decent Old Fashioned that I would make again.
The key to a good Old Fashioned with this bourbon is to add the sugar cube and go heavy on the helping — it brings a lot of balance to the bitterness of the bourbon and makes for a more enjoyable experience even with the toned down flavors. Add in the cocktail bitters and you actually have a glass with some depth and character.
The one thing that I am disappointed in with this cocktail is that, while the added sugar helps, the bitterness still finds a way to shine through and make itself known. The burn is gone, but the bland fuzzy flavors that existed both neat and on the rocks are still there.
Finally, we get a winner. This makes a good Kentucky Mule! The ever-present bitterness disappears into the flavors of the ginger beer, but there are plenty of those caramel and vanilla tones still coming through to actually transform this into something more than just a bland, vodka-based Moscow Mule.
I don’t know if this is an overwhelming endorsement of the bourbon, or we lucked out and found the one way to enjoy it without having to choke down a mediocre drink… but either way, we can conclusively say that a Kentucky Mule is the best way to drink this.
Let’s face facts: the bar was set about ankle high for this bourbon, especially given the reputation of its better known stablemate, Malort. And yet somehow it still managed to stumble, even when sourcing the spirits from other (supposedly commercially viable and well regarded) bourbon manufacturers.
For a value-priced bourbon, this is not terrible… but I would not recommend it. There are other options that you can find at a similar price point with better flavor. It definitely drinks better than I thought when first smelling it, but it’s not a bourbon I would grab if I want something neat.
The only place where this works is if you’re looking to build a cocktail using Chicago local spirits as a selling point. Jeppson’s is a well known brand in the city (not necessarily for the best reasons, but still), and not everyone is aware of the delicious nectar of the gods that is pouring out of Few Spirits down the road.
Illinois, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $28.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
I would summarize this with another Jeppson’s Malort slogan: “When you need to unfriend someone… in person”.