The Maker of Chicago’s Infamous Malört Just Released a Whiskey

Jeppson’s Bourbon is a milder, more palatable alternative to their herbaceous flagship

The Maker of Chicago’s Infamous Malört Just Released a Whiskey
By Ari Bendersky / April 15, 2020 9:11 am

When the label behind Chicago’s infamous Malört announced that they were set to release a bourbon on April 1st, no one believed them.

Haha. April Fools. Very funny.

But rest assured that it’s very real. I know because I’m currently in possession of a bottle.

Jeppson’s Malört, one of Chicago’s most iconic brands — up there with deep dish pizza, hot dogs and Michael Jordan — may not have the best reputation. In fact, many flat out revile it; ordering up a round of the bitter-tasting, wormwood-based liquor has become an initiation of sorts, typically deployed to assault the palates of friends from other cities upon their arrival.

Distilled in Chicago since the 1930s, the spirit was purchased in 2018 by local outfit CH Distillery, known for its vodka, gin and liqueurs. Aware of the cachet of his new brand’s name, CH CEO and head distiller Tremaine Atkinson proposed the idea of bottling a bourbon under the Jeppson’s label. He shared it with the top brass at Binny’s Beverage Depot, one of the Midwest’s largest liquor superstores. They loved the idea, and suggested Atkinson release it on April Fools’ Day. All jokes aside, it almost didn’t happen. 

“Around March 9, we had a tank of this bourbon ready to get bottled,” Atkinson says. “We heard a huge crash and ran into the production room at the CH Distillery and that whole tank of bourbon fell over. No one was hurt, but we lost a bunch of the bourbon. Then someone suggested it was the ghost of Carl Jeppson wanting to get a taste! There were so many things that went wrong to get this out April 1, but we managed to get it done.”

The idea for Jeppson’s Bourbon, which is bottled at 100 proof with a mash bill comprising 75 percent corn, 21 percent rye and four percent barley, goes back a few years. In 2013, to add a whiskey to the bar at the CH tasting room in the West Loop, Atkinson bought four barrels of two-year-old bourbon from MGP, a commercial distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., that produces a range of spirits for dozens of brands. That went over well, so around three years ago, Atkinson bought 600 more barrels of whiskey from MGP and another, undisclosed Tennessee distillery and stashed it all away to mature a while longer. When that whiskey hit the four-year mark, he tasted it and realized he had something special. 

“That’s when we came up with the idea to put a blend together,” Atkinson says. 

Atkinson tasked CH team member Tyrus Yamagiwa, who he now calls their unofficial barrel master, with blending the final recipe. Yamagiwa spent about six weeks tasting from 135 different barrels before settling on a blend from 85 of them, which became Jeppson’s Bourbon. That flavor profile is a little rough yet somewhat refined, with a little burn, a little sweet and a little spicy, all wrapped up notes of caramel and vanilla. It’s good on its own or with some ice cubes, but also works well in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan.

Bottom line: It’s a pretty tasty whiskey that’s also affordable at about $25. And with 12,000 bottles just released, there’s plenty out in the market. 

But why slap a Jeppson’s label on it and not keep it for the CH brand?

“To me, it’s like Malört,” Atkinson says. “We’re OK with people having some trepidation about it, but we have this ace up our sleeve in that it’s actually good bourbon. And if we wanted to get this great juice out there at this great price under the Jeppson’s name, more people would notice it.”

And that’s no joke.