A weird, bitter spirit from just south of Wisconsin's border is taking over Madison's craftiest cocktail menus.
That spirit is Jeppson's Malört. A Swedish wormwood liquor once produced exclusively in Chicago, it started popping up on Windy City bar menus last summer.
Locally, adventurous drinkers can find it at Merchant, Forequarter and the new Heritage Tavern, which had its soft opening Thursday night.
"You might call it the Guinness of the Midwest or the Fernet of Chicago," wrote Sarah Freeman in a story for Zagat last summer. "Drinking some could be called a rite of passage — Malört virginity is quickly stripped with a room-temperature shot of the amber-tinted liquid. It’s going to hurt the first time."
According to Freeman, Malört was distilled and distributed only in Chicago through the mid-'70s, when production moved to Florida. It is now distributed by Wirtz Beverage Group, a division of the Chicago-based Wirtz Corporation.
In June, Condé Nast Traveler called it "the kinda gross drink you can't leave Chicago without trying." A month before, a CBS reporter called it "the worst thing to happen to Chicago ... an awful liquor."
"It’s not the initial sweet taste of malört that kicks ya in the gut, it’s the extraordinarily bitter aftertaste," wrote CBS's Mason Johnson. "It sticks around like an ex who won’t lose your number or stop stalking your Facebook."
Even before Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis drank it on camera in "Drinking Buddies," the national breakthrough for Jeppson's Malört may have been earlier this summer, when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley cup.
"Based on intel from bar owners and suppliers, more people drank the wormwood-based Chicago-made Swedish schnapps on Monday (June 24) than 'any day in history. Period,'" reported the Huffington Post on June 28.
Heritage Tavern, which counts two Chicagoland natives among its head staff — bar manager Grant Hurless and front-of-house manager Zack Lozoff — is offering a cocktail simply titled a "Malört Thing," which will feature Jeppson's Malört and could change daily.
"It's wormwood, so it's nice and bitter," Hurless said. "The way I play with the flavors, the first flavor that comes to my mind is vegetal," Hurless said. "Like a bitter green salad, what would I do with it?
"You want to balance the bitterness with things like fruit. I like to add more vegetation."
The current version of the Malört Thing includes basil, orange juice and honey, all of which would go well in a bitter green salad, Hurless said. He wants to challenge the staff to keep coming up with new variations.
"It's a fun way to get people creative, watch them surprise themselves and make something good," he said. "The key is to love the Malört, not hide the Malört."
But even though bartenders love it, they have few delusions about its flavors. In the Zagat story, various mixologists described the taste as "grapefruit rind and kerosene," "rubber tires," "gasoline-soaked grass" and "the brooding kid in the corner."
I did a shot of the spirit, which is 70 proof, at Forequarter. It wasn't as bad as all that — at least not at first. The aftertaste is powerful, but the astringent herbal taste of Malört was less off-putting to me than, say, absinthe or aquavit, both of which I find unpleasant even in shot form.
I might be alone in that based on the reactions of these Red Eye staffers, whose expressions range from disgust to confusion to horror as they try Malört for the first time.
They don't call it "Malört face" for nothing.