The viral video that “promotes” Jeppson’s Malört compares its taste to grapefruit, earwax and Hitler. Google “malort face” and you’ll find a series of Flickrs and photo streams documenting the painful expressions of those sampling this abhorrent alcoholic beverage for the first time. The A.V. Club website’s taste test notes “It’s exactly like eating a tire fire.” Lots of things have been described as so bad, it’s good. Malört is so bad, it’s evil.
Jeppson’s Malört is a Chicago thing. Despite a recent wave of publicity, it’s not widely available elsewhere. I experienced it on the last night of my first visit to Chicago in 2011. I was sitting with my wife, her sister and her sister’s husband—all very nice people who had, up to this point, displayed nothing but impeccable taste in booze—in Twin Anchors, an old bar and restaurant known for fantastic ribs and as the site of a great scene from The Dark Knight, when the incident occurred. The Chicagoans decided the Las Vegans must try the Malört.
Shots were poured and devious grins were exchanged by those who knew. I sniffed the light amber liquid. It smelled a little like grass and a lot like formaldehyde. Down the hatch. It was rough, but as soon as I started thinking that’s not so bad, it got real bad, real fast. If it tastes like grapefruit, we’re talking about rancid zombie grapefruit. It tastes like rot. It tastes like anger and despair. It tastes like your tongue is dying a black, screaming death.
The Malört experience is unique in its badness. There really is nothing quite like it, and the story behind this stuff is perhaps more interesting than the taste. According to an August article in Chicago’s Redeye, Malört is a Swedish liquor (bäsk brännvin), most popular there in the late 1800s. Carl Jeppson brought the drink with him to Chicago, then sold his company to a lawyer named George Brode, who sold his company in 1953 but held onto just one product. Guess what it was?
When Brode died in 1999, the Carl Jeppson company came under the control of his longtime legal secretary, Pat Gabelick. She’d been running things by herself until three 30ish guys contacted her for some kind of twisted Malört research project and ended up donating their time to promote the stuff. Now there are T-shirts, events, a hilarious Facebook page, and more. A recent slogan contest netted this utterly fantastic and apropos line: “It tastes like the day Dad left.”
In Chicago, the cool-kid ironic consumption of Malört is just part of its popularity. The bitter booze has been a multigenerational tradition for some of the many Swedish and Polish families that live in the area, and longtime watering holes like the Green Mill—where I first heard about the existence of Malört—have stocked it forever. When someone walks into a bar like this one and carelessly orders a shot of whatever, they’re going to get more than they bargained for. They’re going to get Malört.
It’ll be terrible, but it’ll also be awesome. As far as I know, there are two bottles of Jeppson’s Malört in Las Vegas, at my house. If you get a chance to taste it, maybe you’ll understand why some loyal drinkers have tattooed the Jeppson’s crest on their bodies. Or maybe not.