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Malört Is Not Just a Chicago Thing Anymore

A new festival dedicated to the hyperlocal liquor has found a home… in Milwaukee.

Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

A few years back, a friend and I popped into a Bucktown dive bar that was advertising a special “Fire-lört” shot.

“Is that what it sounds like?” my friend asked the bartender.

“Yeah,” he replied. “The Malört really makes the Fireball palatable.”

Chicagoans have long regarded Jeppson’s Malört — the city’s beloved, reviled wormwood liquor — with this kind of reverence. Love it or hate it, the shot has become as much a rite of passage for Chicagoans as polar vortexes and as much a signifier of the city’s shared identity as hotdogs, the Chicago flag, and Urlacher billboards.

But according to the guys behind a new Malört festival happening this Saturday, the drink is ready to reach a new crowd of drinkers beyond the city limits — specifically, in Milwaukee.

“I don’t want to dismiss the fact that it’s something Chicagoans should be proud of, but it’s grown up,” says Rob Zellermayer, general manager of Ray’s Wine and Spirits, the Milwaukee liquor store hosting the festival. “It’s found its place beyond the Illinois border.”

The idea isn’t to erase the drink’s deep Chicago roots, he says, but to export it to drinkers outside the city who know it only as a foul-tasting novelty drink in viral videos and films like Drinking Buddies.

Timed to coincide with the Cubs series against the Brewers at Miller Park, the festival reflects how the infamous liqueur has taken off beyond the city where it was first introduced by Carl Jeppson in the 1930s. Matthew Roy, the Illinois-born co-organizer of the festival, has noticed the booze catching on gradually at Milwaukee bars over the past decade, but he’s seen a noticeable spike in prevalence over the last three years.

“It’s grown a ton,” Roy says.

For Zellermayer and Roy, the festival is just one way to further spread the gospel of Malört.

“It’s probably the most intriguing liquor in the world,” Zellermayer says. “It doesn’t matter if you like it or hate it — you are affected by it.”

But lest the notion of some Milwaukeeans championing Malört leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Chicagoans, be assured that Zellermayer and Roy respect its origins and view the festival as a way to bring people together over the distinctive drink. According to Zellermayer, the festival is partly an effort to smooth over the “animosity” between Chicago and Milwaukee, often duked out in proxy battles between the Cubs and Brewers.

“I wanted to create a space for Brewers fans and Cubs fans to do the one thing we all agree on, which is drinking,” he says.

The festival will feature beers from both Chicago and Milwaukee and Malört-infused slushies representing each city. Chicago hotdogs, that other great gastronomical export from our city, will also be on offer for free.

Like our hotdog, New York pizza, or the Philly cheesesteak — regional foodstuffs that have achieved national ubiquity — Zellermyer and Roy see the potential for Malört to spread beyond Chicago, which recently welcomed the booze home from Florida after 30 years.

“It’s so one-of-a-kind,” Roy says. “It’s a bonding thing. It’s the most social-antisocial thing you can do.”

“Social-antisocial” sounds like a fitting enough dichotomy for Chicago, with its brutal climate and tough-talking gregariousness. But will Malört’s increasing popularity elsewhere dilute the drink’s local identity?

I posed the question to Chicago writer Megan Kirby. A friend introduced her to the booze on her birthday, well after she’d moved to the city.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, that isn’t so bad,’” she recalls. But, like others blindsided by its layers of severe flavors, she was taken aback by the aftertaste that followed.

Even so, like so many other Chicagoans willing to grimace through its brutally bitter taste, she’s come to love Malört. That it’s not just Chicagoans — or the unfortunate passers-through unwittingly subjected to Malört by locals — who are now getting in on the fun doesn’t detract from that.

“It’s more than a pride thing: I like the whole ritual and experience, and it feels so Chicago,” she says. “Everyone should be able to take this awful shot.”

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