Chicago's beloved liqueur rose to prominence along with YouTube and the iPhone
You’ve seen it. Either on your phone, your work computer, somewhere. It probably came to you from a friend with a description like: “LOL. You’ll love this. So crazy!” In this case, “it” isn’t referring to a video of a gorilla in a swimming pool or a fidget spinner on a puppy's head. No, it's Malört. Specifically, #MalortFace reaction videos showing someone’s first taste of the astringent, wormwood-based liqueur from Chicago.
Derided by non-Chicagoans and embraced by the Windy City as an inside joke of sorts, the polarizing digestif pushes drinkers into the far corners of the palatable versus non-palatable discourse. After all, there’s no room for middle ground when the packaging itself describes the concoction as being “for two-fisted drinkers.” But how did Malört, with its unique flavor profile and relatively modest proof of 70, gain such notoriety to begin with? As they say, it’s all about the timing.
Malört’s rise from the obscurity of Chicago dive bars coincided with the emergence of the Second City’s hipster cycling scene, which, in a serendipitous intersection of culture and technology, all crested at approximately the same moment as the emergence of YouTube and the release of the very first iPhone.
The above video is the second-oldest result that shows up when you search “Malort” on YouTube. The oldest video is from the same account, a friend of mine, and it is far less compelling than this one. Shot with a Moto Razr(!) on a perfect early-June night in the back alley on Chicago’s northwest side, the video captures the staples that future #MalortFace videos would strive for: an unsuspecting victim, a heroically ambitious swig of Malört, a defeated reaction and realization of what they’ve consumed that borders on the tragic, and then an understated punchline: “You guys are jerks.”
The astringency of it all! That’s the only thing I remember about my first taste of Malört back in the winter of 2006. I had tagged along with some friends who were competing in a scavenger hunt/bike race/bar crawl through Chicago. At one of the stops there was a physical challenge asking competitors to choose between doing a shot of Malört and swallowing the contents of a bag of Lipton tea. Baffled by the seemingly imbalanced choice, I ordered a shot, drank it, and became so confused as to what I had taken in. There’s none of the cutting violence of vodka’s front, no smoothness of an aged whiskey. Just a curiously overpowering citrus astringency. Not a piquance, but a cutting sterility that overwhelms your tongue like a grapefruit rind-flavored wet-nap of death. It honestly tastes much better than it sounds.
The cartoonish reactions many people have to drinking it is half the fun of Malört. That its emergence came hand-in-hand with the advent of self-recording and self-publishing on the internet is not coincidental. As iPhones gave everyone the option to make #content, the hilarity of an unsuspecting rube, typically an out-of-towner, being captured was too much for Chicagoans to ignore. Having worked in a handful of Chicago bars between 2007 and 2012 as a door guy and bartender, I can attest to the demand for the stuff skyrocketing. I remember one bar manager saying, “Holy shit, I have to put in an order request for the first time in 20 years."
As #MalortFace began to escape the gravitational pull of the Midwest and spread across the country later in the aughts and into the early 2010s, travel and foodie stars of YouTube came around to it and began cashing in for the clicks. Not so suddenly, the wormwood liqueur had become a viral sensation all its own.
By 2012, Anthony Bourdain had talked about Malört on his show The Layover, although he did not reveal a reaction face of his first shot. It also had a moment in the forgettable rom-com Drinking Buddies. And then something happened that no one had anticipated: other liquor companies wanting to make Malört. Few Spirits and Letherbee, two excellent small distillers in the Chicagoland area, began making their own interpretations of Malört (don’t worry, they got the je nais se quois pretty good). Then Carl Jeppson’s, the original producers, trademarked “Malört” in 2015. Another unexpected cost of fame? YouTube videos of stupid, stupid people (typically white dudes) drinking too much Malört and then barfing.
#Malrtface is, of course, not the only type of reaction-shot video you can find. Still, the timing of it all couldn’t have been more perfect. From an afterthought collecting dust on a dive bar’s shelf, to becoming something of a dare that Chicago’s bike messengers and bartenders would goad one another into taking, to becoming a “Chicago must” for tourists, Malört has seen a wholly unexpected rise. The reaction videos and their makers were... well, pioneers is a little too strong of a word. But they did, with the help of YouTube and the iPhone, unintentionally spark something on the internet. Food and drink culture has seen a boom in the past decade thanks to smartphones and YouTube empowering everyone with an extreme hot sauce, a delicious burger, a jar of something gross, or a bottle of a weird, 70-proof wormwood liqueur.