If you don’t shiver at least a little bit at the mention of Jeppson’s Malort, you probably haven’t had it. Whether that shiver is from anticipation or disgust, the divisive digestif is a mainstay in Chicago’s drinking scene. A rite of passage for some, the ideal companion to a 16 oz. can of Old Style for others, its medicinal, herbaceous and dry flavor haunts the palette.
Malort, a type of digestif from Sweden, called Bask, has seen a meteoric rise to popularity over the last decade. For many Chicagoans (myself included), Malort is like winter; it’s bitter and overstays its welcome. We talk up its bite and proudly suffer through it so we can share war stories about it after a pint of our favorite lager melts it away like sweet sunshine. Even those of us who don’t enjoy it know the Chicago Handshake, that pairing of a shot of Malort with a lager, usually Old Style.
Arguably the most infamous bottle in Chicago, Malort’s roots run wide and deep. Originally distilled by Carl Jeppson, a homesick Swedish immigrant who pined for the wormwood liqueur enjoyed by his countrymen, Malort would go on to endure Prohibition and changes in ownership.
Over the last 100 years, Malort’s distillery’s been moved from Chicago to Kentucky, Kentucky to Florida and from Florida back to Chicago after CH Distillery bought the recipe. Located in an industrial part of town between Chinatown, Pilsen, the South Loop and the West Loop, the vibrant murals on its exterior set it apart from the neighboring warehouses and packaging plants. The distillery’s interior is pristine and industrial. Cases of Jeppson’s Malort and Bourbon and a number of CH Distillery’s other products populate the spaces between the stainless steel stills, water purifiers, bottling lines and other vessels used for distillation. The deep hum of half a dozen different instruments used in the production process took turns competing with Distiller Nick White’s voice as he gave me a tour of the distillery.
Before leaving in August of 2022, White had worked at CH since before the craft distillery acquired the recipe and brand in 2018. In the almost five years since the acquisition, Malort has become his main output. He said, “I mostly did milling and worked on the vodka before [the acquisition]. Now almost all I do is batch Malort; it’s pretty much my entire job.”
With five years of distilling spirits under his belt, Nick has his job down to a science. After breaking down each step in the distillation process with the expertise that comes from dedicating years to a craft, he was kind enough to simplify it for me, saying, “It’s like making Kool-Aid, essentially. You’re mixing different solids and liquids together; you’ve got your sugar, your mix, your water and all these things come together. Only I’m making it 4,000 liters at a time.”
His day-to-day mostly involves that Kool-Aid-like process, running tubes between stills to mix liquids, occasionally infusing them with wormwood. But he also has to ensure that the digestif is up to snuff. “It’s a lot of drinking. Like, it’s a lot of drinking,” he remarked with a hint of exhaustion toward the quality control process that requires him to drink his work. After he showed me around the distillery, I had the opportunity to do the same.
I won’t get into each individual spirit that I sampled, as I tried sips from about 11 of the distillery’s bottles, some of which likely won’t enter production, like Malort aged in mezcal barrels, but I think it’s worth noting here that of CH’s products that I tried, I was most impressed by their vodka. As someone who defaults to gin, rum or really anything that isn’t vodka, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed their take on that most neutral of spirits. As someone who’s always looking for ways to beef up my Bloody Mary, I also really loved their peppercorn vodka, which packs an extremely flavorful punch.
In the spirit of CH’s hometown pride, I set out to make something nobody should ever try, though I’m sure many have: a Chicago-style hot dog-inspired cocktail that uses Malort. Now, I cannot stress enough that this isn’t for everyone, but as someone who loves a grilled Vienna Beef frank dragged through the garden—and the occasional savory cocktail—I couldn’t resist.
Now, the drink itself doesn’t exactly taste like a Chicago-style hot dog. In fact, it’s most similar in flavor and composition to a Negronil; Malort matches Campari’s herbal, bitter flavor here, but the Chicago-style Negroni is anything but a one-to-one match.
How to Make the Chicago-style Negroni
First things first: I fully understand that not all of CH’s bottles are widely available, so anything I use here can be swapped out with an equivalent that’s available in your region. Here’s what you’ll need to make the drink itself:
Sweet red vermouth
Malort or Bask
Peppercorn (or pepper-infused) vodka
For the garnish, I recommend grabbing sport peppers and pickles, but they’re wholly optional! I also considered using cocktail wieners.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Why the heck do you need hot dogs for this? Because you’re going to do a fat wash, of course! Fat washing involves infusing a spirit with that fat’s flavor. For meat, it involves cooking the fat off, but you can also do it with oils like sesame or olive oil. For this recipe, I went with a ratio of about one unit of fat for every four units of liquor. You can go higher or lower depending on how much flavor you want to add.
Before cooking, I recommend either cutting up the franks or poking holes in them to ensure that you get the most fat out of each sausage. Add five hot dogs to a frying pan on medium heat and cook until you’ve rendered off the desired amount of fat. Put a strainer over a heat-safe container and empty the frying pan in—dogs and all. Next, either remove the hot dogs from the strainer if you’d like to eat them, or pour the Malort over them to get as much fat as possible. Put a lid on your container and shake vigorously every once in a while. After a few hours, pop the container in the fridge overnight. The next day, the fat will have solidified and separated from the Malort. Strain the now-hot-dog-infused Malort into a new container, and now you have hot-dog-infused Malort!
Now let’s get to building that cocktail. First, cut a slit into one of your cherry tomatoes and run it along half of your glass’ rim. Then rim it in celery salt. Then, in your glass, add:
One large ice cube/ball or a few smaller ice cubes
.25 oz hot dog-infused Malort
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. peppercorn vodka or pepper-infused vodka
1 oz. aquavit
Stir all your ingredients, and you’re all set. Optionally, garnish with a sport pepper, a cherry tomato and a pickle before enjoying. To my mind, every part of the Chicago-style dog is represented here.
Aquavit covers the dill pickle, the sweet vermouth nails the subtle sweetness from the relish and the tomato and the celery salt is proving its versatility as one of my favorite seasonings with its mildly numbing, rich, savory flavor. The Malort brings the smokiness and almost bitter quality of a charred Vienna Beef frank, and although the peppercorn vodka is admittedly more mild than the sport pepper, they’d take over the whole drink if I put much more in. Last but not least, the aquavit’s currant and anise notes are reminiscent of the iconic seeded bun.