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  • Brian Tasch

A Very Scary Malört Tasting

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

Disclaimer #1: This is a very late Halloween post. And while "Spooky Season" has come and gone, the pungent wormwood bitterness of Malört continues to linger, haunting the palates of all who cross its path. But fear not, dear reader, and join me for this tasting that literally nobody asked for.


Disclaimer #2: I'm from Chicago.


Spooky Season was upon us and in the spirit of things, I decided to taste what some may believe to be the scariest bottle on the backbar. Not Besk, not Bäska Snaps, but the equally feared and maligned Jeppson's Malört.

a bottle of jeppson's malort, barrel aged malort, and jeppson's single barrel bourbon

If you've spent any significant time in Chicago, you've probably at least heard of Malört. If you've spent any time drinking in Chicago, I'm sure you've found yourself with a shot glass brimming with the stuff at some point whether you ordered it or not. Malört tends to appear when you least expect it and/or when you least need it - nobody ever asks if you want a shot of Malört, it simply appears. It's a bartender's handshake, a welcoming shot, a parting shot, a hazing shot.


Outside of Chicago, Malört is most synonymous with meme-y reaction videos of bartenders and sommeliers doing their best to tolerate the unfamiliar, acrid liqueur while espousing the most outlandish metaphorical tasting notes they can think of. It's what Jeppson's staked their entire marketing campaign on for the past decade. It's certainly an interesting approach to promote your own product as anything from hard to drink to super gross, but it seems to be working.


So what is it? Malört is a wormwood liqueur from Chicago. It is based on a Swedish liqueur called Bäsk which is mostly flavored with wormwood but may include other botanicals. Malört only uses wormwood and as a result is fairly one-note, that note being bitter.

brian holding a bag of dried wormwood with a visible malort tattoo on his wrist

Wormwood is exceptionally bitter and tastes quite a bit like grapefruit pith. A single teaspoon of wormwood steeped in a cup of boiled water will produce one of the most violently bitter tisanes you can imagine. Thankfully, a bit of sugar helps mellow Malört's bitter bite.


Some brief history for context: Jeppson's Malört was created in Chicago by a Swedish immigrant named Carl Jeppson. It was originally marketed as medicinal bäskbrännvin, or bitter distilled spirit, as a cure for stomach worms during prohibition. Following the repeal of prohibition, Jeppson began selling Malört (still simply called bäskbrannvin) commercially. Fun fact: from 1945 to 1989 each bottle included an entire sprig of wormwood. Holy moly.

a bottle of jeppson's swedish brannvin with a massive sprig of wormwood inside

Anyway, you can read the whole history on Jeppson's website if you care to. As for me, I'll pick up sometime around 2011. This is when I would have first been introduced to Malört. At the time it was produced and bottled in Florida using a horrid neutral grain distillate, flavored with inconsistently sourced wormwood, and artificially colored with yellow #5. I recall describing it as tasting like somebody poured a bottle of the shittiest gin into a bag of rotting grapefruits. It was not good, but I was young and wild so I drank it.


Thankfully, CH Distillery bought the Carl Jeppson Company in 2018, bringing the production of Malört back to Chicago and improving upon the product in every imaginable way. It's both less bitter and less sweet. The wormwood is sourced for consistency, and it is no longer artificially colored.


But do these improvements make it any good?


Well, we're going to find out! And what's this? Jeppson's is barrel-aging their Malört in ex-bourbon barrels for limited release BAM, or Barrel-Aged Malört! Obviously, we have to try the two side by side.



Malört

Origin: Chicago, IL USA

Producer: CH Distillery

ABV: 35%

Known Botanicals: wormwood

Nose: wormwood, grapefruit pith, faint menthol, stemmy

Palate: wormwood, grapefruit pith, lemon, chamomile

Finish: wormwood, grapefruit pith, lemon pith, chamomile, eucalyptus

Additional Notes: Straw, or rather wormwood, yellow appearance. Tiny particulate matter is barely noticeable floating around when held to the light. Light body. Goes down easy enough on account of the proof and sugar, but every sip ultimately ends with wormwood trapped on the palate with nowhere to go. Your palate will be permeated with the stuff and each breath you take will be punctuated with wormwood.



On to the Barrel-Aged Malört, or BAM. This bottling sees our dear Malört finished in bourbon barrels. One can assume these casks are from CH Distillery's own bourbon, not to be confused with Jeppson's single barrel bourbon label.


Barrel-Aged Malört (2021)

Origin: Chicago, IL USA

Producer: CH Distillery

ABV: 35%

Known Botanicals: wormwood

Nose: bourbon, toasted corn, cherry, candied ginger, wormwood, faint menthol

Palate: wormwood, bourbon, cherry, candy corn, oak, faint vanilla

Finish: wormwood, grapefruit pith, bourbon, cherry, stemmy

Additional Notes: Straw, or rather wormwood, yellow appearance. Tiny particulate matter is barely noticeable floating around when held to the light. Almost identical to the standard bottling, with only a touch more orange to the visual. Light body. The bourbon cask is immediately noticeable on the nose and palate. Thankfully, the barrel tempers the lingering wormwood on the palate, making for a much more tolerable sip. Some may even find genuine pleasure in this bottle! Unfortunately, I do find it brings an overwhelming caramel and butterscotch note to cocktails, which is otherwise mostly absent.



There aren't too many cocktails of note that successfully incorporate Malört, but Brad Bolt's Hard Sell is probably the most well-known. Other successful cocktails tend to lean into the perceived grapefruit note in Malört (brought on by the wormwood).


Hard Sell

.75 oz London Dry Gin

.75 oz Jeppson's Malört

.75 oz St. Germain Elderflower liqueur

.75 oz Lemon Juice


Both Malörts made for tasty renditions of this cocktail, but they skewed in different directions. The standard expression tasted of the signature white grapefruit, lychee, and elderflower while the version with BAM had a distinct note of caramel and cacao on the palate with a lingering butterscotch note. It got me thinking about trying the drink with a different base spirit, namely bourbon...


Verdict: Not so bad! There are plenty of harder-to-drink, more bitter liqueurs out there. Elisir Novasalus for one. Bitterman's Amer Sauvage is another. In fact, just because I know ya'll really came here for the #MalörtFace, I'll give you a peek at my reaction to Bitterman's Amer Sauvage.



Don't get me wrong, it's a delicious gentian liqueur, but it blows Malört out of the water when it comes to bitterness. Full tasting notes will be added to my Gentian Liqueur Tasting Guide. But let's get back to Jeppson's for now.


So let's say you've found yourself in possession of the yellow stuff, either by choice or "gift." You may be wondering just what the heck to do with that bottle besides the Hard Sell and other Malort-based cocktails that may have graced menus across Chicago (looking at you Worm Tamer, Violet Hour circa 2010).


In cocktails it is a straightforward modifier and a little goes a long way. Lean into the "grapefruit" note from the wormwood. Anywhere you would call for more complex bitters, you could try subbing a bit of Malort. It's great in Paloma and Greyhound style highballs, and unsurprisingly works nicely where grapefruit forward bitters like Campari hang, but let's face it: you'll more than likely be taking novelty shots of the stuff with unassuming friends.


Along with the Malört and BAM '21, I grabbed a bottle of Jeppson's single barrel straight bourbon (Z10, Tennessee). And while it doesn't really belong in a tasting with Malört, I still tasted it and now you have to read about it.


Jeppson's Straight Single Barrel Bourbon (Barrel Z10 Tennessee)

Origin: Chicago, IL USA

Producer: whiskey sourced from George Dickel, bottled by CH Distillery

ABV: 53.5%

Mashbill: 84% corn, 8% rye, 8% malted barley

Nose: corn, peanut, cherry, cinnamon, toasted coconut, oak, apple, mineralic

Palate: toasted corn, charred oak, apricot, cinnamon, vanilla, cherry

Finish: toasted corn, charred oak, vanilla, cacao, clove, cherry

Additional Notes: Dark amber appearance. It certainly drinks like a 107 proof whiskey. Hot on the palate, but with a nice, slightly oily texture. It's an absolute delight on its own and it works well in cocktails. At the price point, this seems like a steal! Don't be scared away by the Jeppson's branding and the association with Malört, which may color your perception of the quality of this bourbon.


a bottle of jeppson's single barrel bourbon with a pour of it in a wine glass

Despite the truly unfortunate brand affiliation, Jeppson's Bourbon is delicious. I haven't tried their standard straight bourbon (a blend of straight bourbons all with a minimum age of 4 years) or their other single barrel bourbon (Z13, whiskey sourced from MGP), but a quick Google search shows some very positive reviews.


Just out of curiosity, I shook up a version of the Hard Sell using BAM and swapped the London Dry Gin for Jeppson's Bourbon. Bourbon, St. Germain, and lemon have proven a tried and true pairing. By leaning into the perceived grapefruit flavor brought on by Malört's wormwood, we can assume bourbon and Malört may actually work well together since most whiskey has an affinity for grapefruit.


As expected, it worked wonderfully, though the caramel note from the BAM certainly is distinct. I found that a little bit of saline solution balances this note, creating a more pleasant salted caramel flavor. Then, for the sake of science, I tried using Jeppson's Bourbon in a standard Hard Sell, without the BAM. Bingo.


So finally, I present the American Nightmare cocktail, my riff on Brad Bolt's Hard Sell:

Brian Tasch's American Nightmare cocktail, a fluorescent wormwood yellow cocktail served in a nick and nora cocktail glass

American Nightmare

.75 oz Jeppson's Bourbon

.75 oz Jeppson's Malört

.75 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

.75 oz Lemon


In the event you don't have access to Jeppson's Bourbon, I can confirm that both Old Forrester Signature 100 and Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon make fantastic substitutes. If you only have the Barrel-Aged Malört on hand, the cocktail becomes a Give up the Ghost with the addition of a little bit of salt.


Give up the Ghost

.75 oz Jeppson's Bourbon

.75 oz Jeppson's Barrel-Aged Malört

.75 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

.75 oz Lemon

9 drops saline solution


Stay safe out there, y'all.

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