Sometimes you can go home again — even if you’re a bitter-tasting liquor.
Jeppson’s Malört, which had been made in Florida since the 1970s, is coming back to Chicago after the brand was purchased by Pilsen-based CH Distillery. The craft distillery, known for its organic vodka and London dry gin, will begin making the strong-flavored liquor starting in 2019.
Malört was the brainchild of Carl Jeppson, who brought his homemade spirit with him from Sweden when he immigrated to Chicago in the 1930s. It was the Swede’s take on traditional bäsk brännvin (also known as besk) — a Scandinavian liquor distilled from potatoes, grain or wood — that translates to “bitter distilled spirit” in Swedish. The liquor’s distinct flavor comes from wormwood, a bitter, parasite-killing herb that’s the main ingredient in absinthe.
Jeppson, who opened a cigar shop in Chicago, began selling his drink during Prohibition door-to-door — or sometimes out of a suitcase on the sidewalk. Because of its bitter taste, Malört was easily marketed as a medicine. By the time Prohibition was repealed, Malört had obtained enough of a reputation that Jeppson sold the formula for his drink with his name attached to it.
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The Malört factory in Chicago relocated to Florida in the 1970s, where the liquor’s production remains today. CH Distillery founder Tremaine Atkinson had wanted to bring it back to its hometown for years, but it took the retirement of Carl Jeppson Co. President Pat Gabelick to make it happen.
CH Distillery says it won’t be making changes to Malört’s taste or price, and it will also sell it at its restaurant and cocktail bar in the West Loop.
Don’t necessarily expect Malört to fly off the shelves once it becomes Chicago-made again, even in Cook County — where 90 percent of it is purchased. It’s often consumed as the result of a dare or a lost bet. Several years ago, the liquor went viral after first-time drinkers were pictured making contorted “Malört Faces.”
Katie Cote, CH Distillery’s director of operations, admits it’s not for everyone, describing it as a combination of nail polish remover, chamomile and grapefruit peel. Atkinson has compared the 70-proof liquor to “taking a bite out of a grapefruit and then drinking a shot of gasoline.”
Allison Krupp, a spokeswoman for CH Distillery, says drinking Malört is like “a kick in the mouth” but in a good way. “It appeals to everyone because it is Chicago.”