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Some people swear by bourbon. Others only drink tequila with a lime. And then, there are those, mostly found in the Windy City, who imbibe in a polarizing local delicacy that many Chicagoans hold near and dear: Malort. But not just Malort, it has to be Jeppson’s brand Malort, the unique creation of Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson, who brought his wormwood-based concoction to Chicago in the 1930s.
Since then, Malort has established itself as a Chicago culinary institution, much like Portillo’s, Al’s Beef or Pequods. While deep dish pizza and dripping roast beef have nationwide appeal, the insanely bitter taste of Malort has stayed local to the city for the most part. I’ve been in Chicago for almost five years so I’ve partaken in more than a few shots of this bitter spirit. Here are the pros and cons of the increasingly popular, yet polarizing, drink.
Mozy down to local dive bars like Nisei Lounge or Streeters and you can typically get a shot of Malort and a beer for about $6. There’s no real “rail” option with Malort outside of Jeppson’s, which means you’re getting the best bang for your buck on most orders. The addition of a beer is a huge plus as it helps mellow the taste while keeping you satiated for the next round. That said, I’d keep your orders to only a few shots as this one can sneak up on you. It might be bitter, but it’s equally smooth going down.
It’s a differentiator.
Depending on your mindset, this can be seen as a pro or a con. You might get an approving nod from the longtime bartender when you order the first round, but you also might get several grimaces from your group of friends and even some bystanders. If you’re new to Chicago or looking to make your mark, ordering a few shots of Malort is an instant way to gain a bit of credibility. Yeah, people nearby might think you’re a bit odd for ordering a Malort boilermaker during happy hour but it’s a timeless Chicago initiation ritual that every newbie should partake in at least once.
Oh boy, once you taste Malort, the memory will be etched in your brain for good. Everyone remembers their first shot of this thing. Made from bitter wormwood, Malort is probably the most bitter thing you’ll taste. People often liken it to chewing dandelions or sipping on lighter fluid. Here are just a few reactions.
And while some drinks might start strong and finish mellow, Malort has a way of staying with you well past when you put down the shot glass. The bitterness lingers…a lot. If you’re not expecting that at first, it can be a bit jarring.
It just doesn’t mix well.
Bridging off the taste factor, I’ve only seen Malort poured in small shot glasses. There’s no real mixer, spritz, or tonic water that pairs well with this thing. You can’t really sip Malort; instead, it’s best slammed. Depending on how rowdy you’re getting for the night, that could be a blessing or a curse.
So, there is my breakdown of the pros and cons of Chicago’s special spirit. Malort definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s not something I order consistently. But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. .