Last week, my colleagues had some fun rounding up the internet’s more inventive descriptions of Malört. Among the comparisons: pencil shavings, fertilizer, socks, shoes, pesticide, condoms, and literal throw up.
Readers chimed in with their own impressions of the wormwood liqueur: cat piss, Drano, cigarette ash, rusty nails, the city of Gary, Band-Aids, dandelions, rubber bands, glue, wiper fluid, batteries, and plain old butt. By the end of it, Jeremy Gordon of the Outline had surmised that people were outright faking it.
Performing disgust about Malört is now as big a tradition as drinking Malört; there’s no burn, so it’s far superior to something like, I don’t know, Skol vodka https://t.co/9j0WjjJvMR— Jeremy Gordon (@jeremypgordon) 17 May 2018
The idea that we’re all peacocking feels… wrong. Malört’s a weird flavor, and people feel weird about it. But he’s got a point about the burn. Carl Jeppson’s century-old recipe is only 35 percent alcohol by volume. That’s ten proof less than your average well booze, and you can taste the difference.
A confession, then: I’m fine with Malört. In fact, I like it. If I’m shooting something stronger than amaro, that’s what I want. Where most people taste rotten grapefruit, I taste airy menthol. Your gas-filled condom is my licorice aperitif. That deathless aftertaste? A light citrus lozenge.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. The first person to Malört me, a bartender at the late Fizz tavern, told me his roommates went through a bottle of the stuff a week. I take a shot at the end of every shift, he’d said, so that by the time I get to the next bar, the taste is just fading.
In 2016, when Eater asked ten New York sommeliers to try Malört, at least one, Hristo Zisovski, saw the light. Another, Carrie Lyn Strong, called it “not wildly offensive,” which for a Manhattan wine buff feels like a win.
And in 2014, this magazine reported that Malört’s soaring popularity had launched it into a full-on brand war, with local distilleries brewing their own takes on the drink. At that time, Jeppson’s head Patricia Gabelick said sales had doubled between 2009 and 2012, and that they’d sold 4,500 cases in 2013. Malört’s novelty almost certainly had something to do with the uptick—but that’s also a lot of booze to be going to prank shots and unsuspecting tourists.
So Malört makes your eyes water. You know what else does? Whiskey, and vodka, and rum, and tequila, and (god forbid) gin, which the first and only time I ever shot, as a teenager, I promptly earped up into the nearest suburban toilet.
Point being: Taking shots sucks. It’s an act of camaraderie, not one of pleasure-seeking. If you want to hit yourself in the face, it doesn’t much matter whether you use an open or closed fist.
Fixing to enjoy your drinking experience? Try a cabernet. In the meantime, lay off Chicago’s most underrated export.