Georgians are making faces over bitter Chicago liqueur

Something invasive is spreading in Georgia, and it’s not kudzu.

Its name is Malört, and if you think that sounds like a wicked Harry Potter potion, you wouldn’t be too far off.

Malört is a liqueur that hails from Chicago. For those who have tried it, it can be as divisive as state politics. If you thought Fernet was just a prank that hip bartenders liked to pull on unsuspecting patrons, the Windy City says, “Hold my beer.” (That beer is an Old Style, by the way, and, with a shot of Malört , the resultant boilermaker is dubbed a Chicago Handshake.)

Malört is the Swedish word for wormwood, the bitter plant that flavors spirits like absinthe and vermouth. In the 1920s, a Swedish immigrant named Carl Jeppson, who lived in Chicago, started making bäskbrännvin, a traditional Swedish wormwood-based bitter liqueur, and peddling it door-to-door as medicinal. Legend has it that, when federal agents responsible for cracking down on Prohibition violations tasted Malört, they concluded that it couldn’t possibly be used recreationally, because it was so bitter.

After Prohibition, Jeppson’s Malört became legal. Production remained in Chicago until 1986, when the Mar-Salle distillery closed. The making of the liqueur briefly was moved to a bourbon distiller in Kentucky, then to a small distiller in Florida. In 2019, the CH distillery, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, bought the brand and returned production of Jeppson’s Malört to its hometown.

Hometown pride plays a part in the rising success of this extremely bitter liqueur. Malört is a hard-to-swallow drink for tough people who have to deal with extreme weather, and have a chip on their shoulder as residents of the Second City. Culturally, it has become as symbolic of the city as a Chicago hot dog or deep-dish pizza. (Native Chicagoans prefer tavern-style pizza, but that’s a different story.)

Bartenders and their customers sport Malört T-shirts, hoodies, and, yes, tattoos of the spirit, which comedian John Hodgman described as “pencil shavings and heartbreak.” FEW Spirits distiller Paul Hletko briefly made his own version, and called it Anguish and Regret.

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Slater

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Slater

The taste starts with the promise of grapefruit, then turns bitter, and then even more bitter. This lingering effect, especially when first-timers are caught on camera, started the hashtag #malortface on social media a few years ago. With cult status — and little to no advertising budget before the acquisition by CH — a team of two relied on guerrilla tactics, such as crowdsourcing their slogans, as well as the spirit’s fan base, to spread the word.

As bad as a shot of Malört might sound, sometimes bonding over a challenge, and overcoming adversity with friends, makes memories that create community. This is not hyperbole. Taste it for yourself.


WHERE TO FIND MALÖRT

You can purchase Malört at Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. Also look for it at these metro Atlanta bars and restaurants: Black Bear Tavern, Brick Store Pub, the Deer and the Dove, Holiday Bar, Manuel’s Tavern, Mojo Pizza N’ Pub, Nancy’s Pizzeria, North Highland Pub, Ration and Dram, Victory Sandwich Bar and Wonderkid.