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Don't Be Scared Off by Malört, a Fierce Spirit With a Bittersweet Reputation

Get to know Chicago's hometown hero, malört.

Facebook/Jeppson's Malort

There’s a good reason malört's unofficial slogan is "Malört, when you need to unfriend someone IN PERSON." The spirit, which can resemble amaro on steroids, is named for the Swedish word for wormwood. It’s part of the Scandinavian "besk snaps" tradition of infusing high-proof spirits with bitter herbs to drink during the holidays and long, cold winters that follow. Just a couple of years ago, it was challenging to find malört/besk snaps outside of Chicago, the spirit's unofficial home. But, distribution is slowly expanding, and malört is becoming easier to find.

Jeppson’s Malört is considered the original, and it's often the first malört an imbiber will encounter. (And by the way, plenty of folks have had their malört experience captured for posterity.) Produced by the Carl Jeppson Company, which was founded in 1930s Chicago by an immigrant from Sweden, Chicago loves to claim Jeppson’s and the entire malört tradition as its birthright (although shhh, it’s actually made in Florida). This malört is tongue-curlingly intense at first, but has pleasantly herbal aftertones. It’s hard to get outside of Chicago except oddly, the DC/Baltimore area but this Malort Map can help locate a bottle.

R. Franklin’s Bësk is the cocktail-lover’s malört. Originally called Letherbee’s Malört, the company changed names after Jeppson’s trademarked the word "malört" a couple of years ago. The pale-straw bitter is made by Chicago distiller Letherbee, and developed in collaboration with bartender Robby Haynes, formerly of Chicago’s The Violet Hour. (Franklin is Haynes’ middle name). Bottled at a whopping 100-proof and marketed as "an esoteric shot for adventurous drinkers," as well as a high-end cocktail ingredient, look for grapefruit, star anise and elderflower alongside the trademark bitter onslaught. Best of all: it's sold in a flask.

Anguish and Regret must be the best-named malört ever. Made by FEW Spirits out of Evanston, IL, it’s also no longer called malört, thanks to Jeppson’s and their lawyers. "We actually had to Sharpie out the word ‘malört’ on the label," confided a representative for FEW. It’s a grain-based spirit infused with ras el hanout, a Moroccan-style spice blend that includes cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns and other spices, and contains no sugar, meaning it’s not a liqueur. It’s a small-batch product and thus is hard to get, but distribution is expanding, and it will soon be available in California.

Bäska Snaps is the kinder, gentler way to malört. Formulated by Bittermens, who know a thing or two about bitter potables, this warming amber spirit is made with herb, citrus, and licorice-infused aquavit that's then blended with a touch of sugar and a "wormwood distillate" produced by an absinthe distillery in Pontalier, France (wormwood is a key ingredient in absinthe). It's reminiscent of gingerbread and takes on a mildly bitter edge.

Photos: Facebook/Letherbee Distillers, FEW Spirits