Malort: A Chicago rite of passage

Malort: A Chicago rite of passage

I had a truly Chicago experience over the holidays; I tried Malort. Oh dear lord I wish I could un-taste that. I've avoided this abomination for years, but when someone gave my husband a bottle for Hanukkah it was time to bite the bullet. There are many ways to describe the flavor palette of this liquor, but I think it can be best described as a smell like acetone and a bite that leaves a giant dump in the back of your tongue.

Since Malort is a Chicago creation, it's the topic of this week's 'Did You Know, Chicago?' feature.

So what exactly is Malort? It's a brand of bäsk brännvin, a wormwood-flavored Swedish liquor. (Malort actually means 'wormwood' in Swedish.) This drink was one of the most popular in Sweden in the late 1800's, and many families had their own recipes. The Malort recipe was brought to Chicago by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson.

After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Jeppson sold his recipe to George Brode. Brode got one of the city's first liquor licenses and decided to add this concoction to his company. In 1953, he got out of the liquor business to become a lawyer but decided to continue making and selling Malort because, according to Brode's son, he liked the challenge of selling the undrinkable.

It is the only brand of bask produced in the United States, and you can only buy it in the Chicago metro area.

When Brode died in 1999 he left Jeppson's Malort to his secretary and the current owner, Pat Gabelick. Unfortunately, Gabelick was retired and didn't have the money or manpower to market the product. She doesn't even have a computer. She contracts with a distillery in Florida to make the product. The marketing team behind the recent and popular interactivity is a group of 30-something Chicagoans who grew up with the stuff and promote it for free.

Everyone knows Malort is terrible. The winning slogan for the company's unofficial Twitter branding contest was "Malort: Kick your mouth in the balls." There's a really funny Flickr page featuring photos of people's faces once they've taken a shot. You should also check out this video that tries to describe what it tastes like.

While it might be nasty, the product does sell. It has become very popular in dives and bars around the Chicago area. Bartenders have been known to make Malort cocktails and some establishments even have Malort parties. It might be nasty, but it's Chicago.

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