Malort- The Unofficial Spirit of Chicago
While Al Capone was busy making his bones in Prohibition era Chicago, a lesser known hustler was starting his own lowkey trek toward Chi-Town legendary status. During the dry 1920’s, Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant, circumvented the Volstead Act by peddling his 70-proof home brew door to door with the disclaimer for “medicinal purposes only". Jeppson named his hooch “Malort” after the Swedish word for the herbaceous wormwood plant which gives the drink its extremely distinct flavor. And by “distinct ” I really mean vile, repulsive, and flat out revolting flavor. But don't get me wrong, I’m not saying I don’t like it. It's been said that when the Prohibition Unit Police in Chicago (think Eliot Ness) accused Mr. Jeppson of selling alcohol, one sip of the bitter Malort quickly confirmed that no one would willingly consume the swill for recreation.
A forward thinking young entrepreneur George Brode purchased the Malort recipe from
Jeppson in 1934. He kept the original name and marketed it as part of his Red Horse line of liqueurs. Despite the rough taste, the alcohol’s popularity spread as Brode targeted the city’s large Polish population who possessed their own wormwood cordial Piolunowka. The company embraced Malort’s unpleasant taste and became a master of self-deprecating marketing. They have even encouraged their legions of fans to suggest their own slogans:
“Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson’s Malort reject our liquor…our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate”
“Malort, for when you need to unfriend someone in person”
“The Champagne of Pain”
“Kick your mouth in the balls”
Since its introduction over 85 years ago, Malort has achieved iconic stature throughout Chicago’s neighborhood bars. Taking a shot of the pungent alcohol has become a rite of passage for young Chicagoan bar goers and a sadistic joke to play on out-of-towners.
My first encounter with Malort was by happenstance. As my crew and I settled in for our first slice of authentic deep dish at the Original Pizzeria Uno’s in Chicago, I studied the menu looking for a regional beer to pair with our lunch. My eyes skipped over the Goose Island IPA and 312 Urban Wheat and zeroed in on the Malort. Intrigued by the 1934 history, I asked the waitress for a little more info. She was quick to encourage us to try the local drink. "Sold!" So, without hesitation we ordered a round. She brought over a tray of 5 amber shots, and whispered, “it has an acquired taste” leaving with a wink. As I now look back on this interaction, I can see that she was not a waitress at all, but Lucifer incarnate.
Unaware of what would follow, we raised our glasses with a toast and swallowed. There was a shared confusion, followed by anger. To my right, my buddy went full Schwarzenegger “two weeks” scene from Total Recall. One by one, our faces contorted. Each of us uncontrollably showing off our worst "O" face. WTF just happened?
The waitress stepped back from the shadows with a nefarious look in her eye and asked how we enjoyed it. Then, as if we were successfully admitted into a select group, she went on to tell us the history of the drink and introduced us to the phrase "Malort Face". We’d been punk'd!
Malort Face = The uncontrollable face one makes when they first taste Jeppson's Malort.
Honored to be accepted by the locals, a few of us, actually ordered another round, this time as part of the double fisted cocktail called a Chicago Handshake- a shot of Malort and an Old Style draft beer.
Since the trip, I have ordered my own bottle of Jeppson’s Malort for my home bar and I've even held a Malort Face party. I’ve never considered myself a masochist, with perhaps the exception of the one time I woke up from a naughty dream to find a bloody fishhook in my thigh. I generally do not like pain, but maybe seeing my friends suffer through their first Malort shot might make me a little bit of a sadist.
When in Rome, eat Pasta. When in Chicago, drink Malort.