Next month marks the arrival of the Chicago Cocktail Summit, the city’s first ever conference festival dedicated to the wondrous craft of mixed drinks.
On the agenda: the chance to mingle with some of the most inimitable barkeeps and food writers in the business, all of whom will change the way you order, drink and make cocktails.
And (probably ... inevitably) plenty of appearances by the one bottle Chicagoans love to hate, and hate to love: Jeppson’s Malört.
We hit up Cocktail Summit organizer Billy Helmkamp, who also co-owns The Whistler in Logan Square, for a chat about Chicago’s relationship with the bitter liqueur, as well as for one killer Malört Old Fashioned recipe every home bar enthusiast should have up their sleeve.
So first things first: how do you explain Chicago's love for Malört?
I think Chicagoans are gluttons for punishment. Consider our winters. The Cubs. And Malört.
You must remember first time you had Malört, yes?
At The Whistler, we often do a shift shot at midnight. We had a guy back in the early years who only drank a shot of Malört for this. I was by no means a fan, but I began joining him in solidarity. After a month or so, the strangest thing happened: I started crave it. All it took was 30-40 times.
Sounds about right. Now everyone has their own way of describing Malört — how do you describe it to a first-time drinker?
Bitter, followed by bitter, followed by even more bitter. Honestly, it's not as bad as everyone makes it out to be! Bitter is good.
So what are some of the most common misconceptions about Malört? Should people be really that afraid of Malört face?
Your face will not explode. It will not melt your insides. It will not kill you. It is, however, made from the bones of serial killers.
That also sounds right. Now take us through your thoughts when making a cocktail around Malört — flavor profiles and all. How do you find balance?
You can either embrace Malört and play off its bitterness, or complement it with other strong, aggressive flavors. In taking the former approach, we make an incredible Malört Old Fashioned called the "Chicago Sunset" with Jeppson's Malört, Letherbee Bësk, St. Germain and Peychaud's Bitters. It's a beautiful drink and surprisingly approachable. In taking the latter route, another drink we make called "Lightning Swords of Death" is essentially a Malört Mai Tai made with Jeppson's Malört, a funky Jamaican rum, orgeat, apricot, lime and mint. As we note on the menu, the LSD is Malört gone Tiki style. Either way, balance is key.
The Chicago Sunset
courtesy of Billy Helmkamp, The Whistler
1 oz Jeppson's Malört
.5 oz Letherbee Bësk
.5 oz St. Germain
1 oz Simple Syrup
Directions: Stir and strain over ice (big rock block ice recommended). Top with five dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. Enjoy.
The Chicago Cocktail Summit goes down at the Logan Theatre on May 22-23. You can buy your tickets right here.