Chicago-based Jeppson's has produced the wormwood-based spirit for decades, and it's that familiar yellow-and-red bottle that most people associate with the bitter—to put it mildly—flavor.
Prepare your taste buds, though, because there's a new malort contender in town, courtesy of Wicker Park cocktail lounge The Violet Hour.
Before this past weekend, I had tried Jeppson's malort a grand total of twice. The first was at The Green Mill, a legendary jazz bar that seemed the perfect setting for this Chicago rite of passage. The second was in the RedEye newsroom as part of our staff taste test, for which, by the way, we did not receive hazard pay.
I had survived my first two meetings with Mr. Malort and figured it was only right to give The Violet Hour's version a try.
My server there was so enthused that I had ordered house-made malort--which they've named R. Franklin's Original Recipe Malort after beverage director Robbie Haynes' middle name--that she brought not only a shot of R. Franklin's, but also a shot of Jeppson's with which to compare it. (At which point I preemptively canceled any other plans I had made for the night.)
Dutifully, I took the shot of The Violet Hour's malort, which, at 100-proof to Jeppson's 70-proof, is a Very Grown-Up Drink. It presents most of its flavors—grapefruit, botanicals, burning—up front. It's in stark contrast to Jeppson's, which most people say has an after-kick that's harder than its original taste.
Despite a few requisite post-shot head shakes, I was impressed with what Haynes had created. Working with Letherbee, the Chicago-based distillers of small-batch gin, he's made a spirit that's true to the bitterness of wormwood, but balanced with enough bright citrus and a slight sweetness of elderflower to render it palatable.
Those who aren't ready for a straight shot of the liquor can taste it in the Thigh-High cocktail ($12), which my server also brought me. (At which point I called a cab home in advance.) The egg whites in the cocktail are necessary to temper the bitterness, and Leatherbee gin, honey, amaro and lemon juice are all bold enough to be recognizable alongside the malort.
It's not a drink that everyone will enjoy, and Haynes is OK with that.
"There seems to be a perverse curiosity [about Malort,]" Haynes said. "As with anything bitter, you’re going to get eight people who love it and two whose palates just don’t land that way."
Enough people are loving it that Haynes plans to add a few more malort-based cocktails to the menu this week, and there is even a potential for bottles to be available outside of The Violet Hour if there is a demand.
As for my own malort consumption, I hazily opened the door to my apartment that night thinking that maybe the third time was the charm. Having conquered three malort encounters, I can now safely say, "Wormwood, do your worst."
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