Kevin Ryan Wrote the Book on Malört, the Liquor for Two-Fisted Drinkers
He claims to enjoy it. Really.
Chicago’s most beloved and most awful liquor now comes in book form. The recently released Jeppson’s Malört: The Book by Kevin Ryan is a delightful coffee table tome about a liquor that — according to its own bottle — is identifiable by a “bitter taste [which] is savored by two-fisted drinkers.”
We spoke with Ryan about the now-beloved liquor, and its effects on making friends, running races and being a Marine.
InsideHook: Do you actually enjoy the taste of Malört?
Kevin Ryan: Yes.
Do you think it’s changed your palate?
I am not sure. But I think the more you drink Malört, the more palatable it becomes.
Have you met anyone that’s made Malört their go-to liquor? Anyone who uses it as more of a cocktail ingredient than a shot?
Only all of my closest friends use Malört as their go-to-liquor. Malört may taste incredibly bitter, but it also goes down incredibly smooth. Vodka, tequila, whiskey — they let you know they’re coming down. Malört, however, sneaks in like an uninvited used-car salesman at an open-bar wedding. Once you get beyond his incredibly strong, yet cheap, cologne, you realize that the used-car salesman is actually a lot of fun. He’s just a normal guy who likes to have a good time. Turns out, he is on a quest to visit all 50 states; he’s been to 18 so far. His oldest daughter lives in Vermont, so he hopes to knock out the northeastern states this fall. You don’t know who he knows at the wedding, but you know you like him better than the best man who starts every other sentence with “When I was at Yale….”
Can you pinpoint when Malört became a thing? Not that long ago it was the bottle on the shelf of a bar collecting dust. Now bars are going through a case every weekend.
2011 marks the year of its revival. The previous owner accredits this increase in popularity to “not hippies, but you know what I mean?” She was right — hipsters saved Malört. I cannot say for certain why hipsters started drinking Malört. But I assume, like most things popular among hipsters, Malört’s unpopularity in both name and taste attracted them. Then, like most things popular among hipsters, Malört crossed over into the mainstream. An older generation always drank Malört. Hipsters revived it for my generation. Even I, almost the opposite of a hipster as a military officer, must admit: I first drank Malört in 2011.
Occasionally an out-of-towner who’s never had Malört wants to try the stuff. I always suggest having a shot or buying an airplane-sized bottle rather than a 750ml standard-sized bottle. What’s your typical approach for first-timers?
Go to a neighborhood bar and try Malört in its natural habitat. Then have another one. There is no substitute.
But if you are unable to stop at a neighborhood bar, bring some home. How much? Well, I brought Malört to Oxford, Washington, Tbilisi, Copenhagen and Brussels, among other places. The survival rate for a bottle of Malört, on any given night, once opened, anywhere in the world, before any group of people, in my experience, is exactly 0%. Airplane bottles are good for backpacking. But are they enough?
Would Malört be as popular as it is if the Chicago Handshake — a shot of Jeppson’s Malört and an Old Style [beer] — was called something else? How much of its popularity is tied to city pride?
Malört is the taste of Chicago. No other drink can claim that title. And to my knowledge, no other drink exists that so accurately represents a city. Chicago is a beautiful bully. And Chicagoans love her, broken nose and all. Malört may taste bitter, but at least it’s honest. How honest is a Manhattan?
Revolution Brewing and CH Distillery Make Malört From Old Beer
The result has been dubbed "the most Chicago beverage"
After you finished a marathon, you took a shot of Malört. What did more damage to your body: the 26.2 miles or taking that shot after most likely being dehydrated?
I took a shot of Malört during the race at mile 16. After the midway point, your body will take whatever it can get. So I didn’t really feel anything. But I did earn my fastest 10-mile time with a pre-race meal of one Miller Lite and two shots of Malört.
You’re a Marine. Any chance your training has equipped you better for handling this specific liquor?
No — the other way around: drinking Malört prepared me for the Marines.
Your book is full of photographs of people happily drinking Malört. Do you have any anecdotes of Malört leading to a romantic relationship? Lifelong friendships?
I wish I had a better anecdote to share. But I cannot really think of one. A previous relationship of mine started with Malört. It later turned into a lifelong friendship, and our shared enthusiasm for Malört endures. But I am sure there are examples out there that I am simply unaware of.
So I offer this sentiment instead: While writing this book, I made many new friends and deepened existing friendships. I fully enjoyed the journey. The experience itself was its own story; in fact, one could write a book about it (or even better, a Broadway musical starring Hugh Jackman as me). I am happy that I finished the book. But I will treasure the memories I made while writing it most of all.
I am unsure how to define “lifelong friends.” When I die, I don’t know who will attend my funeral. But those who do must certainly qualify as lifelong friends. I hope those friends smile gently at the time we spent together in my lifetime and, with a quick stroke, turn those gentle smiles into disgruntled frowns, as they say farewell with one last shot of Malört.
Final question: Do you actually enjoy the taste of Malört?
The Secret to Great Cocktails? Find Out in The Spill.
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