You guys have heard me talk about goings on at Spirit World plenty of times before. But this Monday night was different. Late at night, after the store closed to the general public, several of us retreated to their tasting room to experience true horrors the likes of which many mouths are unprepared for. Last night, we experimented with tasting a flight of malört and malört-inspired spirits.
Malört is a Swedish spirit made from wormwood (the name actually means “wormwood” in Swedish), so it has a bit of an absinthe-like quality, but that doesn’t begin to describe this spirit. It’s notorious for being harsh, unforgiving, and massively bitter. Many people who try the stuff absolutely hate it, or eagerly foist it upon unsuspecting friends as a prank. To these people, malört is a beverage that no sane person would drink willingly.
And in case you were wondering, yes, I rather enjoy it.
If you’re unfamiliar with malört, the following video will get you up to speed quickly (fair warning: it’s not for the easily offended).
If you’ve watched that video, you should have a pretty good understanding of just how “unique” an experience you may get from a swig of this stuff.
Malört was brought to the U.S. by Swedish Immigrants, and there were once many producers subjecting my fellow countrymen to the stuff. Among them was Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant to Chicago who put his all into spreading his unique brand of liquid mayhem around the city. Now, Jeppson’s Malört is the last remaining brand to bear the malört name.
Until recently, it was the only bitter wormwood liqueur of the sort left available at all, but in the past few years, several other brands have started producing malört-like spirits. Jeppson’s now holds the copyright to the “malört” name, so other brands have resorted to alternative names for their ridiculously bitter wormwood spirits.
My first introduction to the stuff was a shot of Letherbee’s interpretation, called Besk (after the Swedish word for wormwood brandy. It was originally just called “malört” but…copyright lawsuits). On the first of my late-night pilgrimages to Spirit World, I was subjected to a shot of this stuff, and I found that I really liked it. It tastes like… well, I’ll get to that. For now, let’s just say that it was unusual and unforgettable.
So when I heard that we’d be tasting a flight of malört-likes, I was quite intrigued, even as my palate cried out in anticipatory agony.
We of course started off with Jeppson’s Malört, which was a new experience for me. It was easily the most heinously bitter of the four drams we tried.
As you can see from the rear label, despite it’s sudden rise in popularity around Chicago, Jeppson’s Malört is now produced in Florida. Somehow, that seems fitting to me, since it tastes like something that fermented in a swamp.
For 35% ABV, it burns like rocket fuel, and has to be one of the roughest, least refined drinks I’ve ever tried. There is no grace or subtlety here whatsoever. There are plenty of flavors, but they all clash with one another, and each can be described as “aggressive,” “astringent,” “ungodly bitter,” or “drain cleaner,” depending on your preference.
There’s no way around it; Jeppson’s Malört is heinously bitter, but it sneaks up on you. It’s a surprisingly thin spirit, and it doesn’t make much of an impression when it hits the tip of your tongue, but once it rolls to the middle and sides of your tongue, you know you need to brace yourself for the coming onslaught. Once it hits the back of the tongue, the bitterness crashes down on you, starting with a rough, medicinal tang, graprefruit rind, and a grassy, acrid bite. As it slides down your throat, the flavors converge into into a potent note of dissolved pills. Jeppson’s Malört also has one of the longest and most persistent finishes of any spirit I’ve ever tried. with sugary sweetness and grapefruit rind lingering more or less forever. Whether that’s a good think will depend on your reaction to this brutish drink.
Oh, and whatever you do, do not add ice to Jeppson’s Malört! No, I’m not being snobby about telling you how to drink your spirits. This is purely a warning for your own survival. Chilling this stuff down and diluting it a bit dials back the sweetness and allows the spirit to open up. However, much like Pandora’s Box, it’s much better left unopened.
Next up was a “gentler” malört-like: a wormwood spirit from FEW, which bears the inviting inscription “Anguish and Regret.” Yeah, that ought to tell you about all you really need to know about this sort of beverage.
FEW’s interpretation of malört is made with ras el hanout in addition to the traditional wormwood. This Moroccan spice blend infuses the liqueur with bold notes of clove, ginger, and allspice. The characteristic bitterness of malört is there, and it builds the more you sip, but it’s far less intense than Jeppson’s. In fact, I found this to be a pretty easily drinkable liqueur, at least compared to the others (not that this is saying much). A few other attendees who hated the night’s other drinks found this one palatable. If there is such as thing as a “beginner” bitter wormwood liqueur, this might be it.
Next up was Letherbee’s Besk, my introduction to malört-like spirits and one I’ve had plenty of experience with. I’ve sipped it, shot it, and had it mixed in cocktails (Try pairing it with an Ardbeg rinse. Seriously).
Besk warns you about its bitterness on the nose, with plenty of grapefruit rind and anise up front. When you sip it, it arrives viscous and sweet, coating the tongue with flavors that are both sugary and deeply bitter. It reminded me a lot of biting into a grapefruit that had been slathered with honey and broiled (a favorite treat of mine when I was growing up). The finish is long (but not as long as Jeppson’s) and both extremely sweet and massively, almost chokingly bitter. Somehow, this works – the bitterness keeps the sweetness from getting too cloying, and in turn the sweetness mutes a bit of the otherwise ridiculously bitter kick. Despite its potency (this 50% ABV liqueur is still brutal), this liqueur might actually be sip-able. If you’re sick in the head like me, that is.
Finally, we closed out with one of Spirit World’s special house experiments – a barrel-aged Besk. Although my palate was completely demolished by the time we got to this one, I can still safely say that this is the holy grail of these unholy spirits.
This spirit isn’t balanced by any means, but the flavors are far more in harmony than they are in the unaged spirit. It lost a lot of the characteristic roughness (okay, sheer violence) of the base spirit, but it’s an intruiguing, complex, and – yes – tasty dram. (Disclaimer: The previous statement was written by a sick individual who actually enjoys this stuff to begin with. Individual results may vary…)
The oak tannins from the barrel mingle with the grapefruit bitterness in a rather pleasant way, along with some great notes of sweet cinnamon, honey, and anise (I also wrote “angst” in my tasting notes, and somehow that seems fitting too). The sweetness and spices give way to bitter grapefruit, more like crunching on seeds and pith than the fruit itself. The sweetness and cinnamon reemerge on the finish, along with some vanilla, keeping the bitterness just restrained enough to be bearable. That might not sound like an endorsement, but believe me, I really liked this one!
It took several days for my palate to completely recover, but this experience was totally worthwhile. I probably won’t be revisiting Jeppson’s Malört any time soon, but trying these unique spirits side-by-side was a blast, and I did really enjoy the total weirdness of several of them, particularly that barrel-aged Besk. I’ll definitely be back for more!
Question of the Day: Have you tried Malört or any similar spirits? What are your thoughts?