Even if you don’t know what it is, you probably already hate malört. It is the most bitter, disgusting, offensive thing I have ever tasted in my life. But you can bet that if I see a bottle behind the bar, the night’s going to end sipping that stuff out of a rocks glass. Malört is near impossible to find outside of Chicago, but there it’s an institution (full disclosure: I’ve never been to Chicago). Practically every bar has a bottle of Jeppson’s brand tucked away somewhere. Lose a bet? Want to impress your friends? Winding down the night? You’re likely drinking malört. I don’t know how it started, I don’t know why people do it, but they do.
Outside of Chicago, malört is much harder to come by. It’s far more common in Scandinavia where this style of liquor originated. Italians have their bitter amari, Deutschland has its herbal kräuterlikör, but they’ve got nothing on the bracingly bitter digestivi that come from the land of ice and snow. It’s no surprise then that bäsk, this wormwood-infused style of liquor, is so intensely bitter when you think of where it comes from. Take a shot of this before you leave the house and those harsh Baltic winds won’t seem that bad. It works great on a snowy day in DC, too.
Luckily for me, this bitter stuff is catching on as a few more widely available versions have hit the market. The one I’ve seen the most is made by US-based Bittermans, who (no surprise here) specialize in all things bitter. Their Bäska Snaps med Malört (bitter schnapps with wormwood) starts with a base of the über Scandinavian caraway-flavored akvavit that’s then infused with licorice and citrus, and blended with a wormwood distillate. It’s just as invigoratingly bitter as Jeppson’s, but the flavor is a bit more complex. The classic malört bitter, honeyed grapefruit flavor comes through just as strong and it’s underpinned by the addition of licorice and an absinthe-like herbaceousness.
If you want to try malört but you’re still a little wary, head to Bar Pilar and order it alongside a Stiegl Radler, a shandy style beer from Austria that’s blended with grapefruit soda. It is criminally refreshingly and you can bet I will be drinking this stuff by the case once the summer heat sets in (hard to imagine now with temps in the single digits, I know). At only 2.5% alcohol by volume though, this stuff needs a bit more of the holy spirit and that’s where the Bäska Snaps comes in. Pour a shot of malört in your glass and the sugary sweet shandy will mellow the pervasive bitterness but still let all the floral grapefruit come through.
If you enjoy it in a Stiegl Radler, you owe it to yourself to try the real thing. Don’t let talk of things like the “Malört Face” scare you, or accusations that it tastes like gasoline or (my favorite) Hitler-flavored-bug-spray. It’s bitter, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not damned delicious. If you’re still curious, check out John Hodgman’s take on malört (via Chicagoist). He’s notorious for making his audience drink it straight from the bottle and I think his portrayal of the stuff is the most honest (“it tastes like pencil shavings and heartbreak”).