Odds are, if you don’t live in Chicago, you have little to no idea what a “Malört” is. Malört is the Swedish word for wormwood (the key ingredient in absinthe) and whose latin name, “Artemisia absinthium,” gives us the name absinthe. On its own, wormwood is extraordinarily bitter, so much so that just a small amount can bitter your palate for hours. Like with Aquavit, another Scandinavian spirit, Malörts are often based on family recipes which mix wormwood with a neutral base spirit, a sweetener to balance out the bitterness, and sometimes other botanicals to help give it some depth. Malört probably would have languished into obscurity were it not for Jeppson’s Malört, a family recipe brought from Sweden to Chicago in the 1880s. Jeppson’s Malört was a brand that formally emerged after prohibition in the 1930s with some strong regional popularity, only to fade into relative obscurity. Like Fernet in San Francisco, Malört found its way into the hands of a few key craft bartenders who embraced the extremely bitter liqueur for what it was: “wonderfully awful.”
From there, Malört began to find traction in Chicago with drinkers posting videos of their first taste (and often dramatic response to it) on Youtube. Jeppson’s Malört quickly became a staple at Chicago beer bars and was often paired with a Session beer. Although word of Malört spread beyond Chicago (we even ran a review of Jeppson’s Malört investigating the phenomenon), the core enthusiasm and consumption has remained contained within the Chicago city limits. Chicago is home to a number of fantastic craft distillers, and when word that a very bitter spirit was catching on in local bars, craft distillers did what craft distillers do: many created their own riff on the bitter spirit. Many of these riffs have been limited to tasting rooms and unofficial sample bottles as Jeppson’s Malört, although a small company has tried quite forcefully to lay legal claim to the Malört name.
While we aren’t lawyers, it seems improbable that a company could lay claim to a style of spirit or even the name of an ingredient in it. Malört being a common Swedish word for a key ingredient makes it fair game. It would be like trying to say that one company can lay claim to the word Absinthe or Juniperus (the Latin genus for the juniper plant). Ultimately, the TTB, who seems to have the last word when it comes to alcohol, has approved a number of Malört labels and grouped them all under the category “liqueur.”
R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört (50% ABV / 100 proof, $20 per 200 ml) – The folks over at Letherbee Distillers set out to do something interesting with their Malört: take a spirit which is widely seen as a horridly bitter and challenging experience, and elevate it. It may seem like a fool’s errand, but these are the kinds of things that craft distillers do, and it’s one of the qualities we adore about them. R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört has some of the same core ingredients as Jeppson’s Malört, namely neutral grain spirits, wormwood, and a sweetening agent. Letherbee’s adds a number of botanicals to the mix to help round it out and support the extreme bitterness, including grapefruit peel, juniper berry, elderflower, and star anise.
Pale yellow in color, R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört doesn’t smell at all like it’s a bravado shot. Light citrus combines with a deep rootiness, light pine from the juniper, and light, sweet flowers. At 50% alcohol there is a slight vapory quality to this Malört, but it’s not nearly as fiery as we expected. The entry is surprisingly light and sweet with the juniper notes leading the charge along with the slightly bitter grapefruit peel which tastes more like the pith than the skin. Then it hits – WORMWOOD! It’s like having a jack-in-the-box in the glass – it leaps out of the core of this spirit with an intensely bitter punch. There’s no way around it, the bitterness here is some of the strongest bitter we’ve tasted. For some, one sip will be all they need to never sip this again. Unlike Jeppson’s Malört, the bitterness isn’t the whole story. The flavors apparent in the entry sustain through the monster bitter punch and then continue all the way through to the finish. The finish is an extremely bitter wormwood that sticks in your palate for literally hours. While not nearly as long as the bitter wormwood, the clear juniper and citrus notes do linger for quite a while on the finish as well.
It’s hard to say that something this punishingly bitter is good, but R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört manages to find the beauty in the beast. For what it is, it’s an excellently crafted product. Beyond the bravado shot, R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört does actually mix (coincidently very well with Letherbee’s Gin) especially in drinks that help temper the extreme bitterness. R. Franklin’s Malört also pairs well with a Session beer, especially lighter Belgians, where the lingering bitterness goes well with the sweet and spice of the beer. Originally made for The Violet Hour, a popular Chicago craft cocktail bar, R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört is now being sold to the public and is available online at DrinkUpNy.com.