A month ago, I'd never tried Jeppson's Malort, the bitter, wormwood-based liqueur that is a mainstay of any Chicago bar shelf. So notorious is its distinctive flavor that the #MalortFace meme was born to capture the puckered faces of first-time tasters.
Now it seems to be the buzziest spirit in Washington.
The local malort story starts at Ivy & Coney, a new Shaw tavern inspired by the Midwest's neighborhood watering holes. Two of the owners are Chicago natives, and they realized they couldn't possibly claim authenticity if they didn't stock the most common brand of the spirit. Cases were special-ordered for the bar's late-December opening.
On my second visit, I let slip that I had never tasted malort, and a glass was duly placed in front of me. I have to say, it's not as bad as everyone made it out to be; a little sharper and more pungent than Fernet, though the bitter, astringent flavor lingers on your tongue for a surprisingly long time.
Anyway, I put the experience down to novelty, figuring I wouldn't see malort again. Then, earlier this week, Boundary Road introduced a malort cocktail. It's a twist on the Hard Sell, a signature cocktail from Chicago's Bar Deville that contains malort, gin and St. Germain. It's an odd drink: The three disparate flavors somehow combine to taste like sharp, vaguely sweet grapefruit juice. It's brisk and shockingly easy to sip, especially for $8.
More malort cocktails are on the way. Bar Pilar is hosting an anti-Valentine's Day party with a menu of bitter drinks, including bar manager Owen Thomson's favorite Malort Bombs: A shot of malort mixed with Stiegl Radler, the grapefruit-flavored Austrian beer, for $8. Prepare to pucker up.