Can you recall your first illicit taste of booze?
Maybe you took a nip from your parents' liquor cabinet. You may have had a partner in this experience, maybe with your best-friend late at night on a sleepover.
Or, perhaps it was at a party that you should not have been at. Were you were egged on by some older kids? Do you remember their eager smiles, anticipating your reaction?
Yes, you may have experienced a violently unpleasant reaction to your first belt of the hard stuff. You may have been expecting something sweet or syrupy, like cola, and then been shocked, perhaps revolted, by the unexpected burning, the oiliness, the foriegn-ness of alcohol.
Your first shot of Carl Jeppson's Malört Liqueur* may be a similar experience, perhaps resulting from an encounter under similar circumstances, for it is something different, something foreign, something like you may have never tasted before.
But, however so unlikely, you might like it!
The Internet Cocktail Database identifies Malört as a 70 proof distillation of Artemisia Absinthium, or grand wormwood, in a base of neutral spirits. I recall that a bottle used to come with a little booklet around the neck. I can only paraphrase what the booklet said, that Malört is "a secret old world recipe of Alpine herbs..." something like that. It conjured an image of an old world medicinal tonic, brewed and distilled as in the olden days by pastoralists to bring good health and ward off illness.
The only remnants of the booklet's text are on a small label on the back of the bottle, "Jeppson's Malört has the aroma and full-bodied flavor of an unusual botanical. Its bitter taste is savored by two-fisted drinkers."
The Carl Jeppson Company is from Chicago, Illinois, as printed on the front label in a gothic script. Jeppson's Malört is printed in the same script in imposing black on red lettering. Above that script is a crest consisting of a crown over a shield emblazoned with three six-pointed red stars on a white-over-blue field, an image very similar to the flag of the city of Chicago. It is currently being produced in Florida by Mid-West Distillers Products in Auburndale, but its sole distributorship remains in Chicago.
I have no idea if Malört is even available outside the Chicago area. Even here, few have any knowledge of Malört's existence. Malört tends not to take up shelf space in trendy, hip places that serve "Electric Nipples" and "Purple-Num-Nums." No, Malört can only be found in neighborhood taverns. Old Man Bars. Indeed, I suspect that there must be some Masonic charter for neighborhood taverns requiring that a bottle of Malört must sit somewhere, under a sheen of dust, amongst the DuKuper bottles of fruit flavored schnapps and other bottom shelf oddities. I can imagine how this charter might read,
"If your establishment is able to clearly receive WBBM on 780 AM, your bar must stock Carl Jeppson's Malört Liqueur under pain of having your Old Man Bar status revoked should you fail to comply."
My own first encounter with Malört occurred in just such a neighborhood tavern in Bensenville, Illinois. I had just flown home to O'Hare from a field service trip just in time for the west-bound rush hour traffic jam on Irving Park Road. I decided to drive downtown to find a place to wait out the worst of it. That place turned out to be 3J's Tavern.
Bensenville is a near western collar county suburb of Chicago in the south west armpit of O'Hare. It is an old community with deep working class roots. 3J's is in a corner building which may have been originally built as a dry-goods store or a druggist but it looked as if it had been a tavern for a long time. The floor is finished with small six-sided tiles. The ceiling is covered with embossed tin. The bar is a massive antiquarian slab of dark laquered wood adorned with taxidermy, a model of sailing ship and another model of a Wright Brothers Flyer, both skillfully constructed from Schlitz cans.
Needless to say I dug the joint. Soon every seat at the bar was taken up by the regular crowd getting off from work. Friendly, talkative people, buying drink tokens for one another and discussing the goings on of the day. I observed that a couple of rounds of shots were being poured from a bottle unfamiliar to me.
Being an inquisitive person, I inquired as to what they were drinking. Their eyes lit up and they smiled knowing, slightly-mischievous smiles which spoke for themselves, "...and so it begins again..."
"Malört", they replied. Without asking, without waiting for my reply, a drink token was given to the woman behind the bar who then poured in front of me a shot of green tea colored liquid. The smiles widened. Several nearby conversations paused.
"Well, what IS it?" I asked. The guy next to me beamed and winked,
"Just try it."
Bar room decorum demanded my compliance. What else could I do? I raised the shot glass to my nose and sniffed. I expected to smell oaky smoke, like a whiskey, as it looked like a pale Lowland Scotch that I had once. Instead, it had a rather herbal smell, not unlike a bag of old-timey horehound candy.
I tipped the glass into my mouth. It was sweet, not soda pop sugary sweet, but the sweet not unlike that of a Ricola lozenge. Immediately following the sweet was the flavor of...
I swallowed and then I exhaled, anticipating the finish. Bitter is not the correct word here, the finish was overwhelmingly antiseptic and medicinal. I had the distinct impression of what drinking Old Spice must be like.
And somehow, I kind of liked it!
I told the people at the bar just that, and they lit up with delight and surprise as if to exclaim, "Hey, whudda y'know, he's one of us!" I had passed some sort of ritual hazing. I had proven myself.
After that first encounter, I stopped in at 3J's for Malört whenever my travels brought me near. Alas, I have not been back for over 7 years because I do not travel for work anymore and I am sober now. Perhaps alcoholism is a defining characteristic of the Malört drinker.
Malört consumption, as I discovered, is popular with working-class demographics. The only person that I am acquainted with that has even heard of Malört is my friend Jason, who belongs to a social organization called The Phoenix Club, a very working-class, membership by invitation sort of place, in which repeated offenses of talking on a cell phone at the bar can result in being disbarred.
My wife, Jason and I, enjoy subjecting our hapless acquaintances to "The Malört Test." Unlike, say, a shot of equal parts grain alcohol and Worcestershire sauce, Malört comes unadulterated into the glass from the bottle and the victim usually thinks, "Well how bad can this be," unless the bartender warns us that, "We are responsible for cleaning up the puke," and spoils the whole thing.
We are not the only ones in Chicago to employ the Malört test either. The AV club of The Onion fame was inspired to conduct a Malört test after learning of a John Hodgman appearance at the Second City Improv theatre in which Hodgman, "reading aloud from the bottle and speaking about the drink's curative abilities for pretty much everything...proceeded to pass two bottles around the audience while he swirled a snifter of it onstage."
Some testimonials that the AV club published after conducting their test include:
"It's foul. I think people in prison make better alcohol than this."
"It tastes like extreme dirt. Not just dirt, but dirt that's been super-charged."
"It tastes like poison. Real poison."
"It's been a few minutes now, and I still kind of have the shakes. That's a bad sign."
"It's exactly like eating a tire fire."
"It has an initial nail-polish-remover flavor."
"It tastes like a cigarette got put out on your tongue."
"It kind of settles into the back of your mouth and then crawls down your throat like an acidic slug."
"I can feel my tongue getting numb. It's like my mouth is creating a defense mechanism against a second sip."
"Reminds me of that time I chewed a Tylenol Gelcap."
"It puts a little stain on your soul that won't wash off."
"Ah! It tastes like death!"
The Malört test has its own Flickr page called Malort Face which has a photo album consisting of weak-willed mortals grimacing after downing a mouthful of Malört.
Bah! Yuppie pansies every one of them!
Surely YOU are not like these pathetic milquetoasts and can stomach a real drink from the Old Country?
If you can find it, buy a bottle. Invite your friends over and have that camera ready!
MKB has located Malört's Twitter Page!!!
Malort available soon WORLDWIDE at Binny's Beverage Depot!!!
If you cannot find Malört in your local liquor stores, contact the author. Despite being unlawful to ship, according to the USPS, something might be able to be "arranged".
* (editorial staff: Blame Borgo!
Dont blame me, blame Carl Jeppson! It is spelled this way on the bottle!)
Any additional testimonials would be very welcomed for this review and will be posted here as a footnote.