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Malört celebrates 90 years: Chicago's bitter liqueur endures

Malört gets its bitter taste from wormwood, a plant also used to make absinthe.
Malört celebrates 90 years: Chicago's bitter liqueur endures
Posted at 3:57 PM, Jul 28, 2023

It's a drink Chicagoans love to hate: Jeppson's Malört, the beloved liqueur that is notoriously bitter, turns 90 this year. And, astonishingly, the Swedish-style spirit is as popular as ever.

"We've about tripled sales since we took over," said Tremaine Atkinson, the owner of the Chicago-based CH Distillery, which acquired Malört in 2018.

As head distiller, Atkinson gets to sample a lot of Malört, something he loves doing even though he's aware of the endless jokes that his product generates.

"Like your tongue just got stung by a bee, that you somehow ended up in your grandma's closet and found an old bottle of hooch that she had and chugged it, that it tastes like all the bad decisions that you've made in your life. I mean, it just goes on and on," Atkinson said while laughing.

The folklore around the drink's flavor is in fact a main selling point for Atkison's CH distillery.

But when it comes to the art of Malört-making, Atkison stresses that the two-week process is no joke.

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Malört gets its bitter taste from wormwood, a plant also used to make absinthe.

"Every culture has a tradition of taking whatever is left at the end of the harvest and just throwing it into alcohol. It's just a way to preserve it," Atkinson explained. 

Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson brought that tradition to Chicago in the 1920s, selling his homemade wormwood-based alcohol as a medical product to skirt prohibition laws.

And when Prohibition ended in 1933, Malört was officially born.

Today, fans of Malört swear that it still has medicinal perks and that it won't give you as bad a hangover as other spirits.

"There's a real reason why it was sold as a tonic door to door, because it really does work," said Crystal Blunt, a regular at Nick's Beer Garden in Chicago. 

The drink has clearly reached cult status in the Windy City. And as Chicagoans introduce friends and family to the magic of Malört, the 90-year-old liquor, whose distribution has expanded to 30 states, is taking over the whole country, one bitter shot at a time. 

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