My friend Julie has a complaint about malort, and it's not that it tastes like sweaty socks wrapped in spoiled grapefruit after marinating in a trash can.
It's that people have started liking it too much.
Not so long ago, Julie explained, malort was an underdog. Chicago bars rarely charged for a shot of the intensely bitter wormwood schnapps, because, well, who in their sound mind would want to drink it? Malort was Chicago's bar scene mascot — a joke, a ritual, a badge of honor — but it was never serious.
And there was a good reason for that.
"It's disgusting," Julie said, as if the fact is both self-evident and its greatest asset. "But now people charge for it, and it's kind of too bad."
There's a reason for that, too, Julie, and it's simple: Malort isn't disgusting anymore. Sure, people still chuckle about it and can be disarmed by its mouth-twisting bitterness. But recent months have shown an undeniable shift across Chicago bars: People like malort.
Bars that barely sold the yellow-green stuff not long ago are going through cases. The spirit has become a frequent (and un-ironic) cocktail ingredient. Perhaps most telling, local craft distillers Few and Letherbee have made their own versions, which has led to an unfolding legal battle over just what malort is and who can use the term.
For as long as malort was nothing but a 1 a.m. dare shot, it might simply have been ahead of its time. In recent years, our palates have shifted toward increasingly complex and ambitious flavors, evidence of which lies in all directions. Balena, in Lincoln Park, has devised a cocktail menu based entirely on bitters. Newly opened Wicker Park restaurant Links Taproom features Fernet Branca, an Italian bitter, on tap (it's hard to convey just how unthinkable that would have been five years ago). Logan Square bar Scofflaw has done them one better, putting malort itself on tap as the one permanent handle in a constellation of ever-changing beers.
The bravest palates are even sipping the stuff.
"People are into this kind of stuff now," said Robby Haynes, who began experimenting with the malort he produces with Letherbee while working as head bartender at The Violet Hour. He recently opened his own bar, Analogue, in Logan Square.
"They love things that are bitter and challenging and interesting," he said. "The easiest line I can draw is to the way people have evolved in the culinary world. Like Longman & Eagle, they had a dish with duck testicles, and people were psyched about it. (People) are more open-minded."
That open-mindedness can be seen in unlikely corners of the city. Last year, Christina's Place, a bar in the Irving Park neighborhood, began immortalizing its spent malort bottles by stacking them on a wall near the front door.
"It started as a joke," said Rory O'Byrne, who has owned Christina's for 13 years. "Now we don't put 'em up anymore because we sell so many."
Malort barely sold at Christina's a year ago, O'Byrne said, but in recent months he has gone through four or five bottles per weekend — about as much as Jose Cuervo, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's. He was stunned the first time someone ordered it mixed with ginger ale.
"I had to taste it for myself," he said. "And it's not bad. It's actually nice and drinkable."
O'Byrne compared malort's rise to what he observed with craft beer — particularly Logan Square's Revolution Brewing — which was a surprise in a neighborhood bar best known for its Jameson shots and $3 Guinness pours.
"We're getting a lot more drinkers who are just into trying things out," O'Byrne said.
For decades, Chicago had but one malort to slug down — Jeppson's Malort, which remains the city's standard. The company traces the roots to Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant who came to Chicago in the 1880s. He owned a cigar shop near Clybourn Avenue and Division Street, and dabbled with making a bitter wormwood schnapps popular back home.
Because he is believed to have started selling his malort during Prohibition, details about his second career are unclear. He might have marketed it for its reputed medicinal benefits; malort was believed to help with cramps, indigestion and worms. Then again, he might have sold it illicitly so people could get drunk.
"The story goes that he was selling it bar to bar, and he was retired from the cigar shop at the time of Prohibition and maybe was looking for some extra money," said Peter Strom, a historian and spokesman for the present-day Jeppson's Malort company. "But this is all conjecture."
After Prohibition, Jeppson sold his recipe to George Brode, a graduate of Northwestern University law school who had gone into the family business at Bielzoff distillery, which bought recipes of various ethnic liqueurs to appeal to the city's swath of European immigrants.
Brode ran the company until the early 1950s, when he went into law full time and sold his line of spirits, except one brand — malort — for which he formed a new company called the Carl Jeppson Co.. The reason for that is also mystery.
"We have no idea why he sold everything but malort," Strom said. "The best guess is that he thought it was a great marketing challenge and that he wanted to think of himself as a great marketer. What better challenge than to sell malort?"
Brode moved malort production to a West Side distillery before it traveled to a bourbon distillery in Kentucky for about two years and then, in 1989, to Florida Caribbean Distillers in Auburndale, Fla. Brode died in 1999, leaving the company to his secretary, Pat Gabelick, who runs it from her Lake Shore Drive condominium.
The fact that Jeppson's has long been made in Florida has been a point of contention among some drinkers, and part of what inspired Letherbee and Few to make their own versions.
"A lot of people give us crap for not being made in Chicago, but I don't think we need to defend our Chicago credentials," Strom said. "We've been sold in Chicago for 90 years. Malort is as Chicago as a hot dog or deep dish pizza."
But now there's a bigger point of contention: who can use the malort name. Shortly after Letherbee released its malort, in January 2013, Jeppson's applied with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the word "malort."
At issue is the definition of malort. Strom argues that what is commonly called "malort" is actually a Swedish schnapps called besk (Swedish for "bitter"), meaning Few and Letherbee have made besks, not malorts. (Absent a resolution, the Tribune is calling the spirit by its commonly accepted generic name: malort.)
"Let me put it this way: I am personally flattered by the fact that they're doing it, and I have nothing against people trying to make their own besk," Strom said. "But malort is our brand name."
Few and Letherbee counter that "malort" is the Swedish word for wormwood and is therefore simply a description of the product. But Jeppson's hit both companies with cease-and-desist letters.
Few owner Paul Hletko said he plans to continue making a wormwood schnapps with the same label, but with the word "malort" blacked out.
"We've received requests for it across the world," said Hletko, whose spirits are distributed in 14 states and eight countries. "It's a Chicago thing, and people want it."
Haynes said he and Letherbee will also continue to make a wormwood schnapps but declined to discuss what it will be called.
In November, a surprising entrant joined the fray: Louisiana-based spirits behemoth Sazerac Co., which owns dozens of well-known brands, requested 90 days to decide whether to petition the trademark. Sazerac has until Feb. 19 to decide; a spokeswoman declined to comment about what she called "a pending legal matter."
Is there anything more ridiculous than malort as "a pending legal matter?" Perhaps there is no greater evidence that what was long merely Chicago's grossest shot has graduated to becoming a serious spirit. Strom, of Jeppson's, said he hears "a much different tone to this revival."
"It seems the people who are drinking us now are drinking us because they legitimately like it — it's not a hangover cure, and not a joke shot," he said. "We have a lot of fans of what we do. I say that with a straight face."
Obviously he hadn't just had a shot of malort.