Build-A-Bar: The Devil and Carl Jeppson

I've always found the notion of "acquired tastes" to be a bit odd. Given that the label is typically reserved for those experiences which are generally off-putting on first try, it seems strange that we would attach so much cachet to the concept. Is it a sort of braggadocio, the grown-up equivalent of licking a flag pole in the dead of winter?

The air around those "acquired tastes" seems a bit precious, sniffed at an angle, the better to look down upon those who haven't passed that particular test. It's as if the willingness to subject yourself to something unpleasant until you've become immune to it is a rite of passage for the sophisticated adult.

Of course, a very reasonable argument can be made that all flavors, excepting perhaps sweet ones, are in fact acquired tastes. As a father of two, I've sat through spoon-feeding toddlers who explosively refuse, say, broccoli eight times in a row, only to fall in love with it on the ninth or tenth try. Substitute pretty much whatever you want for broccoli; I'm sure some parent out there has a similar story for almost any food imaginable. The same, I'd guess, can be said of music, art, literature.

For myself, the act of acquiring tastes comes from a deep desire to experience, and a firm belief that anything anyone consumes out of choice must have something to offer, when you can adjust your senses to accommodate. I liken it to sitting outside looking at the stars. As your eyes adjust to the light, more and more of them become apparent, where before there was only darkness. Many will tell you that darkness is all that Malört has to offer.

In the world of spirits, Malört (Swedish for "wormwood") has become somewhat synonymous with Jeppson's Malört, a brand of Swedish bäsk brännvin, or distilled spirits flavored with wormwood and bottled at relatively low strength. Jeppson's Malört is something of a regional phenomenon, with Chicago as its prime stomping grounds. It's been made there since prohibition, when Carl Jeppson sold it as a "medicinal alcohol," but has stuck around mostly as a prank to pull on unsuspecting drinkers, or as a drinkable badge of courage. I read somewhere that it may have played a role in biker-gang initiations.

I first heard of Malört when a reader offered me a sort of virtual dare, suggesting I procure a bottle for this column and attempt to turn it into something drinkable. The clear implication was that I would fail, and hilariously. I did a little bit of research, and learned that many consider Malört the world's most disgusting spirit; I immediately resolved to meet the challenge. After all, who wouldn't want to make cocktails out of an ingredient that warrants such descriptors as "rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate?"

A few months later, I got my first crack at Malört. I was in L.A. on business, and spied a bottle on the top shelf of a bar. When I inquired, the bartender seemed a bit nonplussed, offering to pour me a half shot for free. I didn't immediately cut my tongue out with a steak knife, and began to think that reports of Malört's deadliness had been greatly exaggerated.

Recently, I got another shot. A friend had a friend who had a connection in Chicago, something involving a soul and a firstborn child, and, after some weeks and many half-jokes about how the bottle was burning a hole in his kitchen cabinets, I was retrieving my very own bottle from the trunk of a car behind a hardware store. As my friend and I cracked the bottle and tipped back our plastic cups, both half-expecting to get a face full of evil spewed back at us, an interesting thing happened. We both shrugged. It wasn't bad. "It's not good," he said. "It's not bad, though," I replied. "In fact, I could see this growing on me."

There are a lot of nice flavors going on in Malört, and it certainly isn't short on character. Malört has a golden body and a nose of boozy chamomile with a hint of grapefruit. As you take a sip, the grapefruit and chamomile bloom across your tongue, trailing an almost honeyed richness. It tastes fragrant and perfumed, lovely in a way. Under those first flavors runs a host of herbal and medicinal flavors that are hard to pin down, sending your mind searching sense memory for analogues it will never find. While you're lost in this reverie, the bitterness sneaks in. It sneaks in like a flash of sunlight after you've had your pupils dilated; strong and striking, momentarily blinding, and with after-effects that seem like they'll never stop.

It's this finishing kick of bitterness, I think, that does most people in. My friend and I mused that, had we not been exposed to a wide array of Amari (bitter Italian digestifs) during the past few years, our thoughts on Malört might well have been different. When you've come to accept bitter as a flavor to be appreciated rather than rejected like an instinctual "poison!" warning, Malört has a shot. If you haven't ... well, just look at how an unsuspecting relative responded to her first shot.

When I stepped up to the bar and started trying my hand at Malört cocktails, I knew I'd have to let it be itself. To cover up something this assertive would be both a fool's errand, and missing the point a bit. Rather than focus on how to deal with the bitterness, I decided to focus on the lovely flavors up front. Chamomile. Honey. Grapefruit.

I'd been playing with Manzanilla sherry a lot, and figured the notes of chamomile would help highlight that character in the Malört, with green apple, almond, and yeasty flavors adding highly complementary notes. The slightly saline quality of the sherry, I mused, might even have a slight taming effect on the Malört, as salt can reduce the perception of bitterness. Rounding things out with the brightness and slight acidity of Cocchi Americano (a personal favorite ingredient of mine), I had a drink. Out of all the drinks I've ever created, I think this might be my favorite.

Dale's Forty Pieces 2.0oz Manzanilla sherry 1.0oz Jeppson's Malört .75oz Cocchi Americano

Stir briefly over ice, strain into white wine glass, cut a wide strip of grapefruit peel, twist over the glass to express the oils, rub the skin-side against the rim of the glass, and insert.

What I love about this drink is how it somehow manages to let the Malört be utterly itself, but in a light, lithe, and lovely way. It's like all those clichéd scenes in all those clichéd movies (you know the ones) where everyone finally realizes that the geek in the back row is actually the prettiest girl in school.

The salty bite of the sherry comes on first, with its briny almonds and apple quickly uplifted by the Malört's chamomile. The aroma of the grapefruit peel and oil meet the Malört in the middle, coaxing out a delightfully spicy fruitiness, with the barest whisper of sweetness and acidity -- in near perfect balance -- serving as a grace note. It's a very restrained cocktail, and very refreshing. Elegant and beguiling, yet very much Malört. When the bitterness comes in at the end, it comes as a gentle reminder, not a smack across the face. If I could get my hands on Malört more easily, I would make this my house cocktail; it's that good.

For another take on Malört, I turned to the good folks at The Violet Hour, one of Chicago's finest bars, and co-creators (along with fellow Chicagoans Letherbee Distillers) of R. Franklin's Original Recipe Malört. They've been treating Malört like a legitimate cocktail ingredient for a while now, and were kind enough to share one of their recipes with me. (As a side note, they were also kind enough to stir up a Dale's Forty Pieces, subbing Oloroso Sherry in for the Manzanilla. It makes for a richer, nuttier drink, delicious and subtly different, a nice twist for cooler weather. They agreed it was "a tasty drink -- a unique build but a surprising balance." I only tell you this so that you know I'm not just some madman whose taste buds have been melted off by Hitler's earwax melted in gasoline.)

Friends Like These (Courtesy of The Violet Hour)

1.5oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth .75oz Letherbee Gin .50oz R. Franklin's Malört (I subbed Jeppson's) .50oz Lemon Juice .50oz Simple Syrup

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a grapefruit peel (expressed and inserted). Float 1 dash Peychaud's Bitters.

The Peychaud's float offers a lush, fruity entrance to the drink, giving way to the herbals of gin and vermouth, which provide most of the backbone. I get mostly grapefruit from the Malört, along with a gentle closing bitterness. It's a delicious drink, and showcases how Malört can be used to create very traditional-tasting cocktails. If you didn't know what was in there, you'd never bat an eyelash. It's also lovely, a golden-hued affair crowned by a halo of magenta.

At this point, I think it's fair to say I've acquired the taste for Malört. It wasn't even that hard, really. Not only does it have something to offer, it has so much to offer that every time I sit down with it I find myself chasing some yet undiscovered nuance. As I'm typing this, I'm trying to identify an earthy, vegetal component that kicks in at the tail end of the already miles-long finish, after the bitterness has run its course. I'm not trying to stick my nose in the air about it, though; I'm too busy with my nose in the glass.

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