Malort: So Chicago it hurts

Economy, Business and FinanceMarketingTwitter, Inc.Chicago Reader

The headquarters for Jeppson’s Malort isn’t much of an office.

No cubicles, no strategy memos—just a killer view of Lake Michigan and one woman: Pat Gabelick.

Gabelick, 69, is the owner of the Carl Jeppson Company, which she runs out of her high-rise apartment building. Her company makes only one product, and it’s a hard sell.

Malort—a Swedish liquor flavored with wormwood—is so uniquely biting that people tend to order shots for sheer shock value. Consider the winning slogan from an unofficial Twitter contest to brand the bitter beverage last year: “Malort: Kick your mouth in the balls.”

The spirit, which goes for about $20 a bottle, is found only in the Chicago metro area, and it has a homegrown appeal that is quickly taking hold with local 20- and 30-somethings. Despite its reputation, the unpalatable liquor can be found on the shelves of dives, lounges and restaurants throughout the city.

What was once a one-woman show with no marketing effort has in the past year been transformed with the first official Malort website, T-shirts, social media accounts and fan events. The men behind the movement are Peter Strom, Sam Mechling and Chris Depa—Chicago 30-somethings earning no money for their work. It’s all for the love of the drink.

“My dad and grandpa have always warned me away from [Malort],” said Strom, who grew up in the Swedish communities of the Northwest Side. “A friend and I finally went to a neighborhood liquor store, and the guy working tried to keep us from buying it. He said, 'I know it’s cheap, but you really don’t want to buy this.' ”

Last year, Strom, a historian who works a day job as a church custodian, contacted Gabelick to begin a research project chronicling the history of Malort.

Starting with boxes of vintage marketing posters, mailers and old liquor catalogs, he has been working to match the pieces of Malort’s story.

When previous owner George Brode died in 1999 and passed the company on to Gabelick—a longtime legal secretary at his private practice—much of the history of the company died with him.

But here’s what Strom does know: Malort is a type of Swedish liquor called a besk brannvin. It was arguably the most popular style of drink in the late 1800s in Sweden, and many families had their own recipes. A man named Carl Jeppson brought his recipe to Chicago in the mid 1880s and, after the repeal of Prohibition, sold the company to Chicago lawyer George Brode who, at the time, also owned a liquor company. When Brode sold the rest of the liquor company off in 1953, he kept only one product—Malort.

“George [Brode] loved marketing and I guess it was a challenge,” Gabelick said. “He could have kept sloe gin or creme de menthe but that would have been boring.”

When Brode died, Gabelick did not have the funds to market Malort as much as it had been in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But sales stayed fairly steady thanks to well-stocked bars such as Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville—which in the late ‘90s was known to go through several bottles a night—Uptown’s The Green Mill, and Brixie’s in Brookfield—not to mention VFW halls throughout the suburbs. The company was reported to be selling around 1,100 cases of product a year as recently as 2009. Gabelick declined to give updated sales figures.

The more recent hipster appeal of the liquor is far from underground anymore. For years, Malort has been stocked at late-night dives and mixed in cocktails to prove a bartender’s prowess. A 2009 article in the Chicago Reader sparked a more widespread interest in the spirit, including Strom’s.

But hipsters are only the half of it. With strong ties to Chicago’s Swedish, Polish and Hispanic enclaves, Malort has been a tradition in some families for years.

It’s these longtime fans who first flocked to the unofficial Malort Facebook page—bragging about buying shots and showing off photos of their Malort crest tattoos. Gabelick made the account official in May and that month attended the first fan night for the drink.

At the event held at Nisei’s Lounge, people rushed to Gabelick, hugging her, wanting pictures—one fan even fell through an open window trying to get to her.

“It’s just so crazy,” said Gabelick, who still is baffled by the attention.

When Bar Deville first opened four years ago, bartender Brad Bolt was moving just a bottle or two a month.

“It went up to maybe four bottles a week [in 2009, when a Malort-based cocktail was added], but over the last two years that’s doubled,” said Bolt, who has the drink’s signature crest tattooed on his arm.

“Two years ago [Malort] was something on the back bar,” he said. “Now we’re seeing a lot more shots. They’re on Twitter and Facebook and doing it in a really playful way and it’s great for getting people interested. They see it and think ‘This is hilarious, I should try this.’ ”

Welcome to the internet, Malort

The Jeppson’s Malort company used to be a mystery when it came to an official online presence—no real website, no company-run social media, no one correcting rumors or telling fans where to find the product.

Now, when old and new fans look up Malort online, they’re not just greeted with photos of the infamous Malort face—pictures snapped to capture first-time drinkers’ sour reactions—and wacky origin tales. They actually can find information and a marketing effort blessed by the company.

Chicago comedian and bartender Sam Mechling is the brain behind the Malort Facebook and Twitter pages—a void he decided to fill back in 2010, without the company’s permission. In a period of two hours, Mechling suddenly was tweeting to 330 followers. Today’s it’s nearly 2,000 fans.

Mechling went on to create a few You Tube-hosted “commercials” for the product. His video “What does Malort taste like”—filled with images of grapefruit, honey, gasoline, earwax and Hitler holding a can of bug spray—has hit more than 10,000 views.

“This isn’t a video of someone break dancing where the whole world knows what it is,” Mechling said. “This is a liquor available only in Chicago, so that many people watching it is kind of amazing.”

Mechling’s social media work became company-endorsed in May, and now connects to the brand’s first website, created by La Grange Park Web programmer Chris Depa.

“We’d like to add additional content, especially historical content and lots of images from our archives,” said Depa of the still-in-progress site. “We have lots of ideas up our sleeves.”

Related: View the RedEye staff's Malort faces. Warning: They're not pretty.

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