For the uninitiated, Malört is not a spirit, but a dare. The bitter, face-contorting Swedish brannvin is something recent Chicago transplants like to challenge their out-of-town friends to drink just to watch the expressions when the aftertaste hits. My phone autocorrects "Malört" to "MALORT," which is pretty accurate.
Even though it’s been a part of Chicago culture for a long time, Malört kind of had a banner year in 2012. It was featured in the local commuter paper, the RedEye, featuring a montage of the staff taking shots of the stuff and showing their “Malört faces;” it later showed up in the Wall Street Journal. Anthony Bourdain sampled the stuff at Lakeview’s L&L Tavern on a Chicago episode of The Layover. Many intrepid mixologists have taken to crafting Malört cocktails. At the new Headquarters in Lakeview, a self-described “beercade” packed with old arcade games and wrestling on TV, bartenders offer “The Billy Mitchell,” a variation on a gin & tonic with Bombay Dry, lime juice, Bitter Tree Lemon Soda and Malört. Bar DeVille in Ukrainian Village offers a similar narrative of gin and citrus with the “Hard Sell,” which features St. Germain, lemon and grapefruit peel.
Before, only one variety of Malört, made by the Carl Jeppson Company and recognized by its distinctive, Chicago-flag-copping insignia, was available for these adventures in alcohol. Now, at Wicker Park cocktaillery of note The Violet Hour, they’ve outdone themselves with, in collaboration with Letherbee Distillers, a house version of Malört named “R. Franklin’s Original recipe Malort” after bartender Robby Franklin Hayes. In contrast to the dive bar staple bottle, Violet Hour’s seems to be a kinder, gentler Malört, featuring a beautifully-drawn label from Nick Pyle and a mix of “grapefruit peel, juniper, elderflower and star anise” to the unforgettable, lingering-in-your-mouth flavors of the original. The house Malört is used in “The Thigh High,”where it resides with Letherbee Autumnal Gin, lime, Amaro Sibilla, egg white and orange flower water. The house Malört made some appearances at the end of the year, was in stock on New Year’s Eve and now it looks like it’ll have a regular place on the shelf in 2013. Sadly, it’s only available at The Violet Hour for now, but maybe someday, this bitter house-made fire-juice can be yours to take home.