Chicago and Malort: A Bitterly Beloved Tradition

Chicago and Malort is a match made in heaven. Or hell. Probably hell. I’ll leave it up to you. Still, most any Chicagoan can probably recall the first time they tasted Malort. I can distinctly recall the evolution of my friend’s facial expressions – naive curiosity, then horror, then confusion, and finally bitterness as the aftertaste lingers. Local traditions, like Chicago and Malort, are a favorite theme of ours. So I decided to look into the drink’s history and its association with our fair city.

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What is Malort?

Chicago and Malort Malort bottle label
Chicago and Malort are so closely associated that we’re even on the bottle labels.

Malort is an herbal liquer whose flavor has been described as everything from fermented grapefruit to burnt carpet and nail polish remover. People love it or they hate it, though it’s usually the latter. But in Chicago, we keep drinking it all the same. Hell, we even buy Malort hot sauce.

Jeppson’s Malort is Chicago’s version of a beskbrännvin. It’s a Swedish-style schnapps distilled with the flavor of wormwood. (deeply ironic YUM sound) The word itself is actually just Swedish for wormwood. The drink was first used as a medicine in the Middle Ages. Much later, Malort made its way to Chicago by way of one particular Swedish immigrant, Carl Jeppson.

Chicago and Malort History

Jeppson started producing Malort on his own and took bottles from bar to bar during prohibition. Being Swedish and in Chicago, this was mainly Clark Street in Andersonville. Categorized as a medicinal alcohol, Malort was legal to produce and sell and became an Andersonville staple. With the repeal of prohibition, Jeppson was finally able to sell his recipe to a proper distiller, Bielzoff Products Co. In the hands of a larger company, Malort spread first to the Polish community and eventually to the rest of Chicago. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tellingly, this particular way of skirting the Volstead Act never spread very far. In fact, Cook County accounts for 90% of all Jeppson’s sales. This is even more remarkable when you learn that the local distillery shut down in the 1970s.

A handy map shows all of the bars and stores that sell Malort. It’s, uh, heavily tilted towards Chicago. Scroll out and you’ll find oddities and lunatics in places like Washington D.C., Baltimore, and one bar in Copenhagen!

Malort is a Chicago Tradition

Chicago and Malort Marie Chicago Detours taste test
Our own Marie Rowley sampling Malort for the first time. I think she likes it!

Chicago may be the world capital of Malort consumption (we’re #1!), but that’s only true because several generations of Chicagoans passed it down. We’re a city of intense pride, so we embrace traditions, even when they taste terrible. Indeed, one of Chicago’s neighborhood bars, Scofflaw, has Malort on tap. Rumor has it their Malort cocktail is actually enjoyable. Color me skeptical.

[Amanda interjects here: I have always found Malort to be tasty, even before this whole hipster Logan Square Malort thing started! If you like a good amaro, like Fernet, you just might enjoy it. Malort isn’t terrible for everyone! However, after telling my employees that I liked Malort, two of them bought me bottles of it. I honestly don’t like it that much, but thank you!]

The strong local history tie is even visible on the label. You can clearly see the Chicago flag‘s famous design, albeit in an earlier form. The labels shows only three stars, which matches the look of the flag during Prohibition.

chicago malort history
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Red Eye

The Jeppson Cult

Chicago and Malort will always be intertwined. Still, it’s safe to say it’s really a cult drink. Jeppson’s doesn’t really have a budget for print advertising, but cult followers have created their own slogans and commercials. Fans also even make their own homemade versions. The faint of heart can head to artisan cocktail bar Violet Hour in Wicker Park after a custom private tour of the neighborhood. Here they have partnered with Letherbee Distillers to make a more palatable version. The Nisei Lounge, a Wrigleyville mainstay is also famous for its Malort-love.

So cheers to this particularly insane Chicago tradition!


–Jenn Harrman and Alex Bean


In business since 2010, Chicago Detours is a passionate team of educators, historians and storytellers. We applied a decade of experience as one of Chicago’s top-rated tour companies to become a virtual event company in 2020. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact about Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through custom tours, content production, and virtual events.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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