The people behind Malört, the liquor Chicago loves to hate

Posted at 4:58 PM, Apr 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-11 16:58:36-04

Malört: it's a Chicago thing people love (to hate). Sold as "medicinal" liquor during prohibition, today the bitter booze is a right of passage. Meet the people bringing the legendary spirit back to its hometown, telling the story in their own words.

Tremaine Atkinson, CEO and Head Distiller, CH Distillery

I don't exactly remember my first shot of Malört, but it was about 20 years ago when I moved here. I have an old friend who is from here and he was like, 'oh you gotta have this, this is a Chicago thing, you'll love it.'

What I do remember is that reaction, which is: "why?" It's a little bit like Chicago, that it's a little bit sweet, but it's mostly like a big fist.

The story goes that during Prohibition, if Carl Jeppson got in trouble with the Feds, he would pour them a shot and then they would say, "of course, no one would ever drink that for pleasure."

Sam Mechling

Sam Mechling, Cultural Ambassador and "Keeper of the Flame," Jeppson's Malört

Carl Jeppson was living in Chicago pre-Prohibition. He found out about a loophole in the Volstead Act, which is what enforced Prohibition, that you could sell medicinal alcohol. When Prohibition hit he was selling it borderline illegally door-to-door to the Swedish community.

He actually sold the company because in his mind he thought, "what's the point of selling medicinal alcohol when regular booze is legal?" No one's gonna want this, but he came to be pretty surprised with the fact that people had woven it into their culture so much that they still wanted it. It was very Chicago.

It became a tradition, especially within families. There's a gentlemen named Tony Izardo who would drink a shot of it at 4 p.m. every single day, because his dad used to do it every single day.

There are a lot of different ways to enjoy Malört. It's kind of like why people watch a show like "Twin Peaks," some people like it because on the surface it's a good show, some people are absolutely terrified of it because it's so weird. I think it's very interpretive.

For me, if I was a sommelier for example, I would say that it tastes like a baby aspirin, wrapped in grapefruit peel, bound with rubber bands and soaked in well gin. It kinda tastes like a Werther's Original that's already been inside an old man's mouth.

Tremaine Atkinson

Tremaine Atkinson

I started CH in 2013 and we bought the Jeppson's Malört Company in 2018. We're only the fourth owners in 80 or 90 years.

Carl Jeppson sold Malört to George Brode, who started really making it into a company. George was a lawyer among other things, but George had a legal secretary named Pat (Gabelick), and Pat took care of him when he was older. And then when he passed away, he left the company to her.

When we started the distillery, I found out that it was made in Florida, and I thought "oh that's not right, 'cause this is a Chicago thing."

I just kept bugging Pat to say, "Hey, we'll make it in Chicago for you." I didn't even care about making any money on it, I just wanted to bring it back here. But she kept saying no. So about a year ago, I gave up on it. Then Sam (Mechling) called me, and said, "she wants to sell the company." And I said, "oh, ok." And he said, "no, she wants to sell the company to you." And I said, "Oh!" As soon as the possibility came up I was like, "yeah, it's got to be part of our family."

Nick White

Nick White, CH Distillery

I am from Chicago, born and bred. I've maybe been out of the city two months total of my life.

I mean, Malört is such a treasured product. A friend of mine had to search hard and wide in Baltimore to see if he can get a bottle, and it was really hard because it was such small distribution.

I finally had a taste and I saw for myself what it really was, and I was like, 'oh...' You're not  gonna see me drink half a bottle in one night that's for sure.

Tremaine Atkinson

So the actual recipe for Jeppson's Malört is top secret, so we don't tell anybody what exactly is in it except we all know that there's, it's got wyrmwood in it. And it has alcohol in it. So, but that's about all we can really say.

The recipe is old, it was written down a long time ago and it probably just evolved over time and no one bothered to write down the changes

It took us a couple of months, we made countless test batches. And the protocol when you're tasting Malört, you do a shot. So you can imagine how many shots we did around here in testing the recipe. It was a true labor of love.

I feel like it's really kind of important to carry on the traditions of the brand, and the ethos of the brand. Because it's not a slick marketing campaign, corporate kind of spirit.

#MalortFace on the WGN Morning News, 2012

Sam Mechling

If you go back to the 60s and 70s, it was actually, it was actually doing really really well back then. And then it did kind of drop off. And so right around 2007, 2008 it was kind of a groundswell of people on the Internet, and it was a collection of Malört faces with the hashtag #MalortFace, and they were all so funny cuz it was Packers fans at tailgates, it was aunts and uncles. You know, so it was, the reactions were so classic.

Bartenders like Malört . We serve so many fruity shots and weak shots to our customers that we crave something stronger than that. It was Jägermeister back in the 90s, and then it was a big Jameson town, and kind of the next step up was your fernets and your Malört, and it kind of became like a badge of pride. It's our way of showing we're wise guys.

It's kinda like a litmus test for being a Chicagoan, because it does prepare you for the sweet and the bitter and all that.

Tremaine Atkinson

People who love Malört, they genuinely love it, they haven't been told to love it. They've come to love it themselves.

I mean people get, you know, tattoos of the Malört logo on their bodies. I mean we laugh about it, and it's important to us.

Nick White

Whether you just want to be very happy and warm about missing Chicago, grab a bottle of Malört that you love. Or you miss cleaning your car in the snow and the grime, and you just want something to be angry about, you grab a bottle of Malört you hate.