Two Malorts, One City: Which Malort Is Best?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 19, 2013 6:00PM

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The label for Letherbee's new malort.
Chicago (or at least Chicago's food media) has been in the grip of something approaching a malort fever for at least the past year. The Redeye made everyone on staff taste it, Serious Eats went on a Malort pub crawl and we found malort cupcakes.

Perhaps it was inevitable that some enterprising soul would come up with a competitor to the strange bitter Swedish drink that Chicago loves to hate. Letherbee's R. Franklin Original Recipe Malort, released earlier this year exclusively at the Violet Hour, is now available in bottles at liquor stores around the city. Two of our resident foodies, Anthony Todd and Amy Cavanaugh, sat down together to answer the burning question on everyone's mind: Which Malort is best?

Anthony Todd: So, let's talk malort! I know you're a big fan of the original, mouth-puckering Jeppson's.

Amy Cavanaugh: I am! My first shot was given to me last summer by Chicagoist editors Sam and Chuck, who told me that it tasted like burnt carpet. But I actually really liked the stuff, and it's my pick for a shot anytime I'm out.

AT: Have you tried the new Letherbee imposter/improvement (depending on how you feel)?

AC: I have - some friends and I did a malort crawl in April, and one of our stops was the Violet Hour, where we tried the Letherbee malort straight and in three cocktails.

AT: I, on the other hand, am the ideal blank slate. I'd never had either until I bought bottles of both last weekend. I've only tasted them side by side or in cocktails that I have mixed. So I lack some experience, but I have no investment in the "street cred" of malort drinking. But I love Amari and other bitter spirits as a general rule.

AC: Which one did you try first?

AT: I tried the original malort first.

AC: What was your first impression of Jeppson's?

AT: I certainly didn't have any "malort face" because I'm used to tasting wacky spirits. My first impression was that the finish kind of tasted like a pickle dipped in cigar ash drizzled with pain.

AC: That is a beautiful description.

AT: Or a terrible one, if you're a marketer.

AC: The finish on Jeppson's is my favorite part. But I'm always looking for very bitter spirits, and hoping to find one that's too bitter for even me to drink.

AT: What would that even look like? You'd realize it in the moment before you died from eating a poisonous plant?

AC: HA - I was just at Balena where they gave me Amaro dell’Erborista, which they said was the most bitter they had.

AT: And?

AC: It's bitter but not harsh like the malorts, and it's a nice after-dinner drink

AT: So here's my thing: I can't imagine sipping malort romantically in front of a fireplace.
For me, that's what bitter after-dinner spirits are for. They make me feel sophisticated. Malort just makes me feel like i have a hangover before i started drinking.

AC: I can put malort in that romantic category—especially Trencherman's barrel-aged malort, which is aged in Hudson Baby Bourbon barrels—but malort always seems to be treated like a joke liqueur.

AC: What were your thoughts when sipping the Letherbee straight?

AT: The Letherbee is much more like a traditional liqueur. It's sweeter, smoother and higher in alcohol content.

AC: One of the differences with the Letherbee is that I get the bitterness immediately, whereas with Jeppson's, it comes later.

AT: Yup. The Letherbee has a bitter front, but ends almost like a Pernod.

AC: I've had both in cocktails and prefer the Letherbee cocktails I had at Violet Hour. What did you make for cocktails with the two at home?

AT: I stole recipes from the Reader. I tried the Hard Sell and the Negroni. I'd say the Hard Sell was better with Letherbee and the negroni with Jeppson's.

AC: I love that you tried each recipe with each liqueur for comparison.

AT: Well, how else would you do it? 😃

AC: Bar DeVille was actually a stop on our Malort tour, becuase they have a bottle of Baska Snaps, which has the consistency of cough medicine and is incredibly sweet.

AT: That sounds like something you'd say as a curse when you can't get a bra off. "Baska snaps!"

AC: HA. It's also my least favorite of the malorts I've had.

AT: So let's talk about that. Which do you like better?

AC: I prefer the Jeppson's for the strong grapefruit flavors and the lingering bitter finish
You prefer the Letherbee?

AT: I do. I think it's much closer to the amari and liqueurs that i tend to drink. Plus, I like Letherbee's signature "taste" which seems to be part of all of their spirits. I think it works well with their malort.

AT: Here's the thing: I'm not sure it's a competitor such as an entirely different thing.

AC: I would agree with you on that - if you didn't tell me that the Letherbee was a malort, and just gave me a taste, I wouldn't even connect it to Jeppson's.

AT: So for the home bartender, what's your recommendation? Have one? Have both?

AC: I have to admit that I don't have either at the moment, but I'd like to have both on my shelves.

AT: If you were telling a new Chicagoan (or an avoider like me) which to try first, what would you say?

AC: I would say Jeppson's. It has a fascinating history and it's fun to tell people what it's all about—after they've taken the shot.

AT: If they'll still believe anything you tell them at that point, once they've gotten up from the floor. That said, I'd have to agree. It's the iconic spirit. But if I want someone to like me in the morning, I'll give them Letherbee.

AC: I have to say, if Jeppson's popularity means that we get more and more locally made bitter spirits, that is a great thing.

AT: Exactly. There were rumors for a while that FEW was working on an Amaro
for The Boarding House, and North Shore's special "Silver Linings" has a little bit of that herbal, bitter thing - though it's certainly not Malort. I'd love to see more interesting liqueurs made locally, not just more vodkas.

AT: Any final thoughts on the Malort battle? Impostor or Imitator or neither?

AC: I'd say it's more "inspired by" than an impostor or imitator.

AT: An homage, that Jeppson's may or may not respond to particularly favorably.

AC: I'll be interested to see how it all plays out.