Chicago is a fine town. I love the place, but I don’t always agree with the citizenry on matters of taste. I enjoy a good Portillo’s Chicago style hot dog or a breaded steak sandwich from Ricobene’s, and I have had some truly incredible dining and drinking experiences in that toddling town, but they get some things wrong. Most of these mistakes are minor, like making a float with Green River or calling that awesome deep dish casserole a pizza. However, there are other transgressions that are far more serious and even dangerous. Chief among these is a staple of the Chicago bar scene, Jeppson’s Malort. If you know, you know. If you don’t, I am not sure I want to encourage you to learn. Some folks swear by the stuff, most folks swear at the stuff, I mostly try to avoid it, but I heard it can be lovely when paired with the right ingredients. I am dubious, but willing to take a chance, so won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Hard Sell.
Many of you have probably never heard of Jeppson’s Malort, but in some circles it is a rite of passage. To be fair, those circles pretty much only exist in Chicago where this “beverage” was born when Carl Jeppson began making “bäskbrännvin”, a traditional Swedish-style of bitters, made with wormwood. How bad is it? Well, they continued to sell it all through Prohibition as a medicinal product that would remove stomach worms and other parasites from the body. A lot of companies tried to use this “medicinal” trick to skirt the law, but Malort barely had to fight since law enforcement representatives determined “nobody would drink this concoction recreationally.”
This Malort driven cocktail was created in 2009 by Brad Bolt at Chicago’s Bar DeVille as a way to ease folks into Malort’s “unique” flavor profile. Chicago’s “favorite” liqueur clocks in at a relatively sedate 70 proof, so it is not rocket fuel. It is bitter though. Horribly bitter, by design. They choose the most “flavorful” strain of wormwood available and up until the 80’s they actually included a stem in every bottle. There are lots of bitter liqueurs out there and I am a big fan of many of them and the way they bring a depth of flavor and balance to drinks. I can get lost all afternoon experiencing the incredible nuance of flavor that most of these drinks provide. No so with Malort. It is bitter. Full stop. Not “bitter with depth” just plain old “why does my tongue feel like this” bitter. It is so unpleasant that it is used as a rite of passage in Chicago bars, with some people even claiming to enjoy it, as they try to hide their scrunched up faces. I only know one person who wanted more after his first taste, but he has poor judgment sometimes and is a bit of a braggadocio. When I first introduced him to this monster of the midway he described its flavor more perfectly than I have ever heard anywhere, as “It tastes like an Expo Marker smells…and I love that!” Clearly he is broken in many interesting ways. So, why did I decide to make a drink featuring it? Simply put, I am trying to find any redeeming qualities in this vile medicinal beverage and this one came highly recommended, with a caveat.
Grab your tins and pop in 1 ounce of gin, they specified Beefeater London Dry Gin, so that is what I used; 1 ounce of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, 3/4 of an ounce of Malort and 3/4 of an ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice. Add some artisanal ice and give it a good shake to “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. When your tins are well chilled, double strain into a coupe and garnish with an expressed grapefruit peel.
A first tentative sip reveals…the sudden crashing memory of the caveat that came with this recommendation. In my excitement at finding a recipe featuring Malort that someone had said was good, I had forgotten the caveat. “This drink is really good if you like grapefruit.” I do not like grapefruit. To be fair, I don’t have any actual animosity toward it, I just don’t go in for it’s sort of flat, bitter taste and I am on a couple of medicines that it has unpleasant interactions with, so we tend to avoid each other. That said, this drink has no grapefruit in it, beyond the spritz of oil from the expressed peel, so if you love grapefruit but can’t have it because of medicines you are on, this may be the drink for you. Obviously, you should ask your doctor about things like this and never, ever take advice from me or any other monkey with delusions of grandeur writing on the internet today. Traditionally, this is the paragraph where I give a nuanced review of the drink, so I guess I should do that. I hate it.
Samuel Johnson once said something about the “triumph of hope over experience” and that applies here. I really thought that an ounce of that sweet elderflower nectar St. Germain could overcome the Malort, but I was mistaken. One of my favorite cocktail writers, Robert Simonson described this drink combo saying, “St. Germain is a little too likable and Malort is not likable enough…it makes sense.” It makes sense, indeed, but it tastes like watery grapefruit juice and that’s a no from me. I get it, the St. Germain almost makes the Malort palatable and leaves room for the lemon juice and dry gin to form an astringent pair of wonder twins leaving the inexplicable grapefruit taste. I get it, I just don’t like it. Of course, tastes vary wildly and my experience is not reflective of yours. Maybe you will take a sip and think, “Oh my goodness, this is the perfect blend of elderflower, gin botanicals and that elusive Expo Marker flavor that I have been looking for all my life. I’ll have another!” As for me, I think I will go scrape my tongue along Wacker Avenue to get a more pleasant “authentic” taste of Chicago, you stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.