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Opinion: In Chicago, Malört is a tradition

The Nisei Lounge in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago produces a candy cane Malört for the holidays.
Charles Rex Arbogast
The Nisei Lounge in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago produces a candy cane Malört for the holidays.

Malört is a digestif distilled from the wormwood plant that tastes of pencil shavings, old battery rust, citrus zest, and ear wax.

It's a version of Swedish bitters introduced to Chicagoans in the 1920s by Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant. He convinced officials of the Prohibition era that his 70-proof liquor tasted so odiously medicinal, it was obviously a treatment for stomach worms, and not an alcoholic drink anyone would quaff for sinful purposes.

I've had Malörttwo or three times, always on a dare. I have no stomach worms. I guess it works!

Bartenders often keep Malört on a back-shelf to "treat" inebriated blowhards to a drink, on the house, after they've led the bar in singing the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theme seven or eight times.

You may wonder: why is a spirit that tastes like cigar ash, singed eyebrows, and Liquid Plumr still brewed? It's a tradition, darn it, so Chicagoans can tell visiting New Yorkers, "You think you're tough? Take a swig of this, Gothamite!"

This year, the CH Distillery, which now brews Malört, produced a candy cane infused version — as festive as a mouthful of Christmas lighter fluid!

But the people who run the Nisei Lounge, a sticky-floored bar which has sat just south of Wrigley Field for 67 years, felt the distillery's Candy Cane Malört amounts to rotgut plagiarism.

Val Capone, the Nisei Lounge Director of Infusions, has soused candy canes into Malört for holidays since 2016, alongside Kosher Dill Pickle Malört for Hanukkah.

"They co-opted our idea," Val Capone told us. "Candy Cane Malört was our baby."

The bar tweeted at the distillery on X, "Quit stealing our mixology ideas without attribution!"

The CH Distillery posted in reply, "In our rush to do good we missed acknowledging those who came before us in the quest to make Malört worse."

The distillery says their bottled Candy Cane Malört raises money for several charities. The Nisei Lounge says their Candy Cane and Dill Pickle Malört, at six bucks a shot, raise funds for the Chicago Food Depository.

"We're a bunch of goofballs here," says Val Capone. "But a dollar from every shot of Malört goes to charity.

"I just want my city," she said, "to have a good time and take care of people."

I'll raise a glass of Malört to that. And then put it back down and pour a nice Sauvignon Blanc.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.