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."