Build-A-Bar: The Devil and Carl Jeppson
I've always found the notion of "acquired tastes" to be a bit odd. Given that the label is typically reserved for those experiences which are generally off-putting on first try, it seems strange that we would attach so much cachet to the concept. Is it a sort of braggadocio, the grown-up equivalent of licking a flag pole in the dead of winter?
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall Dale's Forty Pieces
The air around those "acquired tastes" seems a bit precious, sniffed at an angle, the better to look down upon those who haven't passed that particular test. It's as if the willingness to subject yourself to something unpleasant until you've become immune to it is a rite of passage for the sophisticated adult.
Of course, a very reasonable argument can be made that all flavors, excepting perhaps sweet ones, are in fact acquired tastes. As a father of two, I've sat through spoon-feeding toddlers who explosively refuse, say, broccoli eight times in a row, only to fall in love with it on the ninth or tenth try. Substitute pretty much whatever you want for broccoli; I'm sure some parent out there has a similar story for almost any food imaginable. The same, I'd guess, can be said of music, art, literature.
For myself, the act of acquiring tastes comes from a deep desire to experience, and a firm belief that anything anyone consumes out of choice must have something to offer, when you can adjust your senses to accommodate. I liken it to sitting outside looking at the stars. As your eyes adjust to the light, more and more of them become apparent, where before there was only darkness. Many will tell you that darkness is all that Malört has to offer.
In the world of spirits, Malört (Swedish for "wormwood") has become somewhat synonymous with Jeppson's Malört, a brand of Swedish bäsk brännvin, or distilled spirits flavored with wormwood and bottled at relatively low strength. Jeppson's Malört is something of a regional phenomenon, with Chicago as its prime stomping grounds. It's been made there since prohibition, when Carl Jeppson sold it as a "medicinal alcohol," but has stuck around mostly as a prank to pull on unsuspecting drinkers, or as a drinkable badge of courage. I read somewhere that it may have played a role in biker-gang initiations.
I first heard of Malört when a reader offered me a sort of virtual dare, suggesting I procure a bottle for this column and attempt to turn it into something drinkable. The clear implication was that I would fail, and hilariously. I did a little bit of research, and learned that many consider Malört the world's most disgusting spirit; I immediately resolved to meet the challenge. After all, who wouldn't want to make cocktails out of an ingredient that warrants such descriptors as "rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate?"
A few months later, I got my first crack at Malört. I was in L.A. on business, and spied a bottle on the top shelf of a bar. When I inquired, the bartender seemed a bit nonplussed, offering to pour me a half shot for free. I didn't immediately cut my tongue out with a steak knife, and began to think that reports of Malört's deadliness had been greatly exaggerated.
Recently, I got another shot. A friend had a friend who had a connection in Chicago, something involving a soul and a firstborn child, and, after some weeks and many half-jokes about how the bottle was burning a hole in his kitchen cabinets, I was retrieving my very own bottle from the trunk of a car behind a hardware store. As my friend and I cracked the bottle and tipped back our plastic cups, both half-expecting to get a face full of evil spewed back at us, an interesting thing happened. We both shrugged. It wasn't bad. "It's not good," he said. "It's not bad, though," I replied. "In fact, I could see this growing on me."
There are a lot of nice flavors going on in Malört, and it certainly isn't short on character. Malört has a golden body and a nose of boozy chamomile with a hint of grapefruit. As you take a sip, the grapefruit and chamomile bloom across your tongue, trailing an almost honeyed richness. It tastes fragrant and perfumed, lovely in a way. Under those first flavors runs a host of herbal and medicinal flavors that are hard to pin down, sending your mind searching sense memory for analogues it will never find. While you're lost in this reverie, the bitterness sneaks in. It sneaks in like a flash of sunlight after you've had your pupils dilated; strong and striking, momentarily blinding, and with after-effects that seem like they'll never stop.
It's this finishing kick of bitterness, I think, that does most people in. My friend and I mused that, had we not been exposed to a wide array of Amari (bitter Italian digestifs) during the past few years, our thoughts on Malört might well have been different. When you've come to accept bitter as a flavor to be appreciated rather than rejected like an instinctual "poison!" warning, Malört has a shot. If you haven't ... well, just look at how an unsuspecting relative responded to her first shot.
When I stepped up to the bar and started trying my hand at Malört cocktails, I knew I'd have to let it be itself. To cover up something this assertive would be both a fool's errand, and missing the point a bit. Rather than focus on how to deal with the bitterness, I decided to focus on the lovely flavors up front. Chamomile. Honey. Grapefruit.