Malort and Me
My offering to the party found itself amongst unfamiliar company when I put it on the table at New Year’s Eve. Squeezed in next to the cheap vodka and Irish whiskey, my bottle sat alone on an island like a misfit toy. The contents weren’t triple distilled or infused with pomegranate, and they certainly weren’t smooth or lite. Instead, I had plans to ring in the new year with a beverage that elicited thoughts of a swift kick to the groin, and I had plenty to go around.
Jeppson’s Malört is a liqueur that has deep Chicago ties and a taste that is befittingly bold for a city with broad shoulders. You may need more than an over-developed upper body to genuinely savor this beverage, however. Upon reading the product’s slogan, you’re given a vivid image of what to expect when taking your first sips: “Malört: Kick your mouth in the balls.” Originally distilled in the windy city, and bearing the city’s flag directly on the bottle, the main flavor of the liqueur comes from wormwood, an herb that lends its unique characteristics to various tonics and medicines that range in functionality from killing bugs to preventing protozoan parasites from eating your spleen. Although most tasty beverage ingredients aren’t typically chosen for their ability to ward off insect larvae, wormwood is used to flavor numerous spirits and wines, most notably, the dubiously hallucinogenic alcohol absinthe. The taste of wormwood is strong, strange, and very polarizing, dividing its first-time drinkers into two categories: those that hate it, and those that hate it so much they almost like it. It was almost 2012, and I decided it was high time to separate the boys from the men that like weird tasting shit.
Rarely shackled to any drinking receptacle, Malört is typically enjoyed straight from the bottle, which is exactly how I offered it. And while it’s generally not best practice to take swigs from a mysterious, room temperature bottle of liquor, with a little bit of encouragement, nearly everyone in attendance stepped at least a few sips into flavor country. When I handed the Malört around, in return, I asked only for a concise description of the taste. The results generally fell into two categories:
Chemicals: Drano, silver spray paint, perfume
Nature: Tree bark, dandelions, ass
Now I’m no sommelier, but as someone who has consumed more Malört than most people will in their entire lifetime (which really isn’t that much), it’s my assessment that the earthy descriptions are much more accurate. When Malört first hits your taste buds, it is sweet, and for the most part, unassuming. Shortly thereafter, the true flavor registers in your brain and the aftertaste is a deep, aged bitterness that you could imagine was extracted from the pulp at the core of an ancient evergreen. This progression is perfectly reflected on the faces of the testers, usually beginning as a defiant smirk and ending in a pained and confused grimace. Despite the agonized looks and the fact that the flavor was likened to what racism might taste like, the Malört was well received, and the bottle was gone before the night was up. Although this in itself was an impressive display of the power of Malört, the real magic of the beverage is the tiny seed that it plants in your brain. Some number of weeks after your first pull, this seed inexplicably makes you strain to remember what the liqueur tasted like, gently suggests that it might not have been as bad as you originally thought, and then finally convinces you to buy a bottle yourself and start doling it out to your friends.
For me, this just happened to occur on a night that is typically reserved for champagne, but overall, celebrating the new year with my favorite wormwood booze turned out to be a smashing success. Was it Malört that compelled the party’s host to spontaneously don a dog suit and perform an ill-advised break dance routine? I’d like to think so. Either way, if you invite me to your next party, chances are, I’m going to hand you 750ml of Chicago’s finest.
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