We dare you to love Jeppson’s Malört as much as we do. The quintessentially Chicago liqueur is back in town, and just in time for this city's own craft spirits revival. —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Christina Perozzi, Ken Hunnemeder & Erika Wojno
As far as we’re concerned, Malört, Chicago’s much maligned liqueur, is the most misunderstood and underappreciated drink in the city. This deliciously herbaceous and crazily bitter quaff is loved by many but hated by so many more. To the haters, it’s got a reputation. You drink Malört as punishment when you’re in trouble. You trick people into drinking it as a hilarious prank. You drink it accidentally when you’re high.
We met Tremaine Atkinson, the cofounder of local craft spirits producer CH Distillery and the new owner of Chicago’s own Jeppson’s Malört, by accident. Several of us Goose staffers were out at a bar (surprise!) celebrating 312 Day, a made up holiday that the brewery observes annually on March 12 to celebrate that namesake ale. We were whooping it up and buying rounds of 312 Urban Wheat Ale for everyone in the bar, which included, you guessed it, Atkinson. He promptly returned the favor by sending us a round of Malört.
After one of us stood up and started (loudly) pontificating about how good Malört is, Atkinson introduced himself to us by saying, “I liked Jeppson’s Malört so much, I bought the company.” And so Atkinson invited us to his production facility in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, and the rest is history! All of us from the original meetup went together, because when you’re talking about a liqueur with such an intense flavor—and an equally intense love-hate reputation—you need all hands on deck.
Christina Perozzi: Let’s start with you. What’s your spirits connection, and how did you get into Malört specifically?
Well, let’s go over to the bar while we talk. That’s always a good strategy. No better way to talk about Malört than to open up a bottle.
CP: Yes, we believe that in the beer world as well. In my experience, there’s such a disconnect between people’s perception and what something is really like. I effing love Malört. I think it’s awesome and bitter and herbaceous and weird.
So why doesn’t everybody love it?
CP: Right. I’m not trying to insult you, but you know what I mean.
No, I know. I think a lot more people love it than they realize.
CP: I think so, too—like with craft beer.
To Malört! Cheers. [Everyone raises glasses to toast.]
CP: Mmm, I love that flavor. Is that from citrus at the end?
It’s from the “Top Secret.” Actually, it’s the wormwood. That’s the main thing in Malört.
CP: Like absinthe.
Yeah, but absinthe doesn’t have nearly as much wormwood as Malört does.
Erica Wojno: It’s anise, isn’t it?
Yes, but this is pretty much the purest expression you’ll find of wormwood out there. And this is Northern European wormwood, so it’s got that floral, really deep bitterness, right?
CP: It’s almost like I bit into a tangerine peel or the pith.
Or like a whole grapefruit, and you just took a bite right out of it.
CP: And those flavors are on the sides of your tongue.
EW: I get it in the middle of my tongue.
And there are some subtle floral notes and definitely earthiness.
CP: Kind of like celery or something.
There are other botanicals in it, but wormwood is clearly the key player.
CP: What’s the process to make Malört? Or what can you tell us?
The batches happen in several phases. The first phase is soaking the wormwood in alcohol, which is the main step. From there, it’s blending the flavors and putting them all together.
CP: And infusing.
Yeah, it is more of an infusion process than a distilling process. It was funny, because when we closed the deal to purchase the company in the fall, we got the formula. It was presented like this was the top-secret formula. I could make up a story and say it came on a scroll and Carl Jeppson’s fingerprints were on it. But really, we got a screenshot of an Excel file in an email. “Oh, okay, well…”
Ken Hunnemeder: Very unromantic.
And it actually wasn’t very accurate, either. Not like in a malicious way or anything like that. It was more that you could tell that the formula had evolved.
CP: Well, someone put it in a spreadsheet.
Yeah, we looked at it and thought, “All right. We’ll throw a batch together.” We did. “Nope, that wasn’t right.” So we pretty much started rebuilding the formula from scratch.
CP: How did you compare the original with your versions?
We started the same way we make our fernet [at CH Distillery]: by tasting. Over the course of December and January of this year, the team and I drank probably more Malört than anybody has ever drunk in two months. We knew there were nine or ten ingredients and the drink was very complex and layered. But when you’re tasting as you’re making something, you’re taking very small sips. Then we realized that nobody drinks Malört like that. If you’re really going to understand how Malört tastes, you need to do a shot. That’s the protocol. You’re evaluating what else the spirit needs, whether it has too much or too little of something. After a two-hour session...
KH: Daily taste panels get a little out of control.
It also wrecks your palate pretty fast, so you have to pause. Our officially unofficial palate cleanser at the distillery is matzo.
EW: We use oyster crackers at work.
I love those. Isn’t that classic? Matzo is gluten-free, and we went for the extra fiber. We figure we’re eating a lot of them. It was a pretty interesting process, coming up with the right formula. When we took over the company, we bought what we thought was around six months’ worth of inventory. We knew we needed that to give ourselves some time, but sales accelerated so much just from bringing Malört back to Chicago that six months of inventory only lasted four months.
We had to really hustle to get that first batch out there. And I’ll be the first one to admit we didn’t get it just right on the first batch. The first bottles that we released were too smooth, too good. With other products, people would be like, “Oh, wow, nicely done.” Instead people said, “Wait a minute. This is far too palatable.”
CP: “I like this.”
And you know how people are, they hold Malört so near and dear to their hearts, so we were worried. “Shit, we fucked up a little bit. Are people going to be mad?” Instead they were understanding. “No, no, that’s just Malört. Let’s drink all [of the first batch] so we can get to the next batch.”
CP: Maybe the liqueur was never consistent.
It definitely was not consistent. We are making it more consistent now, and we’ve evolved the recipe.
CP: I should probably taste a little bit more just to make sure. And I’m going to sip this next one even though I know that’s not traditional. So why did you decide to bring Malört back to Chicago?
It more happened than was something we created. When I started in [the spirits] business about seven years ago, I loved Malört, but I didn’t know that it was made in Florida. “Florida? That’s not right!”
The company was owned by Pat Gabelick, who’s now 75. Her old boss, Jeppson Malört’s previous owner George Brode, gave her the company. She was his secretary and took really good care of him, especially when he got older and sick. She ran the business out of her apartment on Lakeshore Drive, just her.
KH: No way.
And then one day, Sam Mechling, who was a bartender at Paddy Long’s, got drunk on Malört, went home, and started a Facebook page for Malört. A few days later, he got a cease-and-desist letter from Pat’s attorney: “Sorry, I know you’re a fan, but you can’t do this.” The story goes that she called him over for a meeting with her lawyer to basically say, “You’re in trouble,” and he walked out of the meeting as her new marketing director.
So when I met Sam, I said, “Hey, we have a distillery here. We love Malört. Can we make it for you on a contract basis?” I bugged Pat for five years and would make pitches, and she would just say, “You seem like a nice young man, but everything’s working fine. I don’t really want to change.” I finally gave up a little over a year ago.
Then lo and behold, Sam called and said, “You know what? Pat wants to retire, and she would like to talk to you about buying the company.” It was my dream come true. I was very fortunate, because she didn’t shop the company around. She wanted Malört to stay in Chicago, and so here we are.
CP: Can I ask how much you paid for it?
You can ask, but I can’t answer. It was enough that she could retire on, and so she was happy, we were happy. It all worked out. It was a really interesting company to buy because it’s been around for so long, longer than anybody who’s drinking it.
CP: How long?
Officially/unofficially since 1933, but the drink goes back to the 1920s, when Carl Jeppson, an immigrant from Sweden, came here. It’s the traditional beverage in Sweden and a lot of Northern Europe.
CP: How is it related to aquavit?
Malört is a digestive, and after you eat a big meal the bitterness of the wormwood helps with digestion, right? Aquavit is similar, although it’s much lighter in style. We make an aquavit [at CH Distilling] as well, which is absolutely delicious, but that goes more with cured fish.
EW: I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen anybody else try to make Malört, or is it strictly proprietary?
We have a trademark on Malört, the brand name. But, yeah, Bësk is the style. Letherbee makes a Bësk. It’s basically a digestive that has a lot of wormwood in it. The Letherbee one is a little different, with more anise, some other flavors. Ours is more traditional.
EW: What about brand expansion beyond Chicago? Any plans for that?
Malört is doing really well in Wisconsin and Kentucky, places where a lot of Chicago bartenders or Chicagoans end up. The Kansas City area is killing it with Malört, but we’re being careful. We’re not trying to spread out too far, too fast. You lose your focus.
EW: The first few times I saw Malört outside of Chicago, I was always surprised. For some reason, I thought it was literally only available in our city.
It’s funny, the curling guys were just here telling us that there are some bars in Minnesota—Malört is not distributed in Minnesota—that have it. You have to go in, especially after 1 a.m., and say to the bartender, “Can I have a shot of The Judge?”
EW: Speakeasy style. We used to do these things called migration weeks, where we would take team members to cities where we were starting to distribute. Sometimes I’d get a call from someone in a city we were visiting who would say, “You’ve got to go get me a bottle of Malört.”
KH: It quickly became a part of the program. Someone had to bring a bottle because we were bringing Chicago to a different city, and Malört was so much a part of the city.
CP: That’s a good transition to how and why Malört is so intrinsic to Chicago and Chicago drinkers.
Well, Jeppson was an immigrant, and this is definitely a city that was built and populated by immigrants. So when he came to Chicago, he brought some of the Old Country with him. Jeppson wasn’t really a business guy; he just loved his home country and he loved this spirit, so he went around door to door selling it.
Remember this was during Prohibition, so he would occasionally get stopped by the feds, and they’d be like, “You can’t sell this.” He’d pour them a shot and they’d go, “Oh my God, nobody would ever drink that!” Jeppson was also marketing it as a medicine, a tonic. [Alcohol for medicinal use was legal during Prohibition.] But really, he was breaking the law from day one.
Eventually he sold the brand name, Jeppson’s Malört, to George, who willed it to Pat, who sold it to us. So Malört has always been a part of Chicago. I think it reflects who we are: It’s not light and easy.
Yeah, a little bitter, probably from those long winters, but also strong. And Malört’s not for everyone, it’s not a Hollywood thing. This is a Midwest working-class kind of drink that has become so ingrained in the culture here.
KH: And small-company purchases like that don’t often fare very well in the public perception; Goose got a lot of flack for the AB-InBev buyout because people were afraid the beer wouldn’t be the same. But this one really went well.
Yeah, I mean, it just was the right thing to do, to bring Malört back to Chicago. I don’t think anybody would look at us and say, “Well, those guys are going to wreck the brand or make it something it isn’t.” We come from the business, we love the industry, and we love and respect the traditional Malört. We’d be the last people to fuck it up, hopefully.
CP: It almost felt like you were buying Malört for Chicago.
KH: Yeah, that’s how it seemed to me, because it was always the Chicago thing that wasn’t made here. So the idea of it coming back just kind of felt right.
Yeah, essentially it was as if somebody starts dating one of your siblings, and you’re like, “All right. Well, they seem to be happy. But hey, you, listen, my sister’s really important to me, so don’t be an asshole.” That’s more of what we got when we bought Malört.
People were like, “All right. You seem all right, but we’re watching you.” It meant something to them. I don’t know too many other brands where people will get tattoos of the brand, and that happens a lot with Malört.
EW: I’ve seen my share of Malört tattoos.
You’re obviously hanging out in the right places. It’s also kind of fun to initiate people to Chicago and the drink with a shot. “Try this, wink, wink.”
KH: I’ve done it to my mom. It was pretty fun.
She’s still talking to you?
KH: She liked it.
CP: People with good palates like it. Do you think it does Malört a disservice when people say things like, “I’m going to give you this as an initiation. Isn’t it shocking and terrible?”
That’s just part of it. People like us who are in this industry tend to forget that we’ve tasted more unusual things than most people ever will and our palate develops. So for us, Malört is beautiful. I love bitter things. I can taste all the subtleties there. But for the average person, bitterness really does taste awful. Your brain is programmed to think something that tastes bitter is probably poisonous, it’s bad for you.
CP: It’s evolutionary.
EW: What are some of the things that you’ve heard people say, like the worst or the weirdest descriptions of the drink?
There are definitely some emotional things, dark, unhappy things: hate, regret, flirting with the devil. “Tonight’s the night you fight your dad” is one of the slogans that’s out there.
CP: I love that so much.
And then people love to compare Malört to things as if they know how something like a used Band-Aid tastes. But how could they know how an old Band-Aid tastes? Or lawn clippings mixed with gas? Actually, the official corporate taste profile description for Malört is ASS, GRASS, and FIRE.
CP: That might be the title of our article.
KH: So when you guys are actually evaluating the liqueur, what are the favorable words that you would use?
That’s interesting. So it’s a liqueur, right? Which means it has sugar in it—a small amount but enough to be called a liqueur. Finding the balance between sweetness and the really bitter flavor of wormwood is the connecting point. Too much sugar can dominate the bitterness, and the bitterness can become too much of a sensation if there’s not enough sweetness.
From there, all of the other secondary flavors are affected by that balance: the floralness, the grapefruit pith flavor, the earthy herbal stuff. And wormwood is a natural thing. We’re not using wormwood extract, so we’ve got that natural variability as well.
CP: This is going to sound real dumb: What exactly is wormwood?
Actually, we can walk in the back and get some. It’s an herb, a stalk with little branchy-looking things.
CP: So I’m assuming it’s also pretty tannic?
Yeah, and the entire plant—the stem, the leaves, the little offshoot stems. It’s about the most bitter thing on the planet. It grows just about everywhere, kind of like a weed, but tastes different depending on where it’s grown. So probably the most important thing was getting the name of the wormwood supplier.
CP: Wormwood has a terroir?
Absolutely. I’ve used wormwood from other climates. It’s nice, but it’s not the same. There’s something about the Northern European wormwood.
EW: Too nice?
Yeah, like, “Ahhhh” instead of [grunt].
KH: Are you getting your supply from Sweden, or you’re not saying?
CP: I like the mystery.
And it’s funny, because anything else that we make, and we obviously make a lot of things, I’ll write down the formula for you. We are all about transparency, and we think that’s cool. Our approach with Malört is that it’s been around way longer than we have, and it’s not our place to mess it up. We did change one thing. I think in the 1970s, they started adding artificial color.
And while you’re finishing your drinks, I’ll tell you a story. So I was traveling in Italy a couple years ago and brought a bottle of our fernet with me, which is potentially a little douchey, right? To show up in Italy with MY fernet. I was at the little bar at the hotel and made friends with the bartender and kind of reluctantly said, “All right. Would you try my fernet?”
“Love to, love to,” the bartender says. So he pours us shots of my fernet and we did a shot together. Mine went down the wrong side, and then I just spit it right back on him.
KH: Oh, no.
CP: But did he like it?
He said he did. I think he had to say that, though.
CP: Right. So what got you into the distilling business?
CP: Like homebrewing?
Yeah, homebrewing. So my dad, when he was a graduate student in physics, had three kids and no money and needed beer, so he homebrewed. That was in the early ’60s, so homebrewing meant going to the grocery store, getting a can of Blue Ribbon malt with hop flavoring, adding water and regular baker’s yeast, and putting it all in a plastic garbage pail. There was this great picture that went around in our family of the garbage pail with the head on it or whatever, and one of my or my brother’s little plastic toy dinosaurs resting on top.
When my brother and I lived in San Francisco in the late ’80s, we decided to give homebrewing a try, and I fell in love with it. A couple of friends and I started North Beach Brewing Company in San Francisco with 5,000 bucks. You guys at Goose Island had also just started around then.
Yeah, [in California] Sierra Nevada was rolling along, and the whole thing was happening. Our business plan was to deliver six kegs to places in the city; we made a pale ale and it was fine. And we sold one keg to my mom for her book club, and that was it.
EW: Aww, thanks, Mom.
Yeah, and she said something like, “Honey, it was delicious! My friends loved it.” We didn’t do too well with our business plan and our meager capital, so North Beach Brewing Company never really came to fruition.
After that, I spent twentysomething years in finance, a career that I just sort of ended up in and got burned out on about seven years ago. I’d kind of saved everything I made, which, fortunately, was more than $5,000. It was a little late to get into the brewing side. That ship was already sailing. I wanted to try the craft spirit side. I love vodka, so I chose that as our core product. That’s how this whole thing got started.
CP: I’m married to a Russian who drinks a lot of vodka and makes these guys drink a lot of vodka when they come over.
KH: Not only does he make you drink it, he makes you drink it off of a sword.
CP: Blades out.
KH: Yeah, just keep the blade pointed away from your throat.
CP: So back to vodka and starting CH Distillery.
The CH stands for carbon and hydrogen, and also Chicago. If you turn the logo on its side, it kind of looks like the Loop. Then the tall H is like a skyscraper, and the blue is the river and the lake. We do something that nobody else does, which is we make our vodka from scratch from organic Illinois grain, no additives. Kane County grain, so it’s super local. Kane County is just 50 miles west of the city. We’re the only ones who do that.
CP: My husband says that vodka, if it’s not made from grain, is not vodka.
Yeah, that sounds like a Russian. The whole idea is that our vodka is not overdistilled. It’s neutral, but it’s got character and tastes like the grain. Vodka is probably the most underappreciated of all the spirits.
And it’s crazy how the craft beer thing has happened here in Chicago recently, because, moving here from San Francisco, I was used to drinking nothing but craft beer as a consumer—and that was 20 years ago. When I got here in ’98, it was just you guys and a few brew pubs.
CP: So did work bring you out to Chicago?
Yeah, I came here for a job. My daughter, who is now 20 years old, was born and raised here in the city. I feel that after 20 years here, I can call myself a Chicagoan.
KH: Especially after being responsible for bringing back Malört.
That was actually really the only reason I did it. I just wanted to be taken seriously as a Chicagoan.
KH: I’d say you’re probably pretty good.
“Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malört reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malört. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, ‘My Malört is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.’ It is not possible to forget our two-fisted liquor. The taste just lingers and lasts—seemingly forever. The first shot is hard to swallow! PERSEVERE. Make it past two ‘shock glasses,’ and with the third you could be ours…forever.” —Jeppson’s Mälort Bottle Label