The Chicago Tribune has called it “sweaty socks wrapped in spoiled grapefruit after marinating in a trash can.” It’s like “Jägermeister heavily diluted in pond water, but less piney,” says the A.V. Club Taste Test blog. It’s “fox poison,” even to its Scandinavian enthusiasts. It’s malört: liquor so nasty even Carl Jeppson, the company that makes it, calls it “punishment.”
It’s also probably Chicago’s dearest liquor. A local blogger who calls herself “Chicago Quirk” has written, “Oh dear lord I wish I could un-taste that”–but she also called a shot of this beverage “a Chicago rite of passage.” No joke. The city is home to the sole US producer and some ninety percent of their sales are made in Cook County. And business is good: in the past couple years, bars that used to give the stuff away as a prank have begun mixing it into cocktails.
But while it’s a local favorite, malört also has a hidden connection to places far away, including the Arabian Peninsula circa 620 AD. That connection is wormwood, the plant that gives malört its intense flavor. Wormwood is associated with Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Aisha was one of several women Muhammad married after the death of his true love Khadija. She was said to be his clear favorite in his later years, but Aisha wasn’t above possessiveness when someone else laid claim to his time. In “Muhammad: The First Muslim” (Riverhead Trade, 2013), journalist Lesley Hazleton writes, “Muhammad spent too long for her liking with another wife who had made a ‘honeyed drink’ for him… Knowing that he was very particular about bad breath, Aisha turned her face away when he finally came into the room, and asked what he had been eating. When told… she wrinkled her nose in distaste. ‘The bees that made that honey must have been eating wormwood,’ she insisted.”
The stuff of malört, wormwood, in other words, has been making people pull ugly faces for at least the last fourteen centuries.The chance to gag has spread far beyond the Middle East. While malört (the Swedish translation of “wormwood”) currently survives only here, the geographic spread of wormwood from Mecca to Stockholm to Chicago hints at the plant’s global reach. It’s everywhere in culture, too, from the Book of Revelations to the boozy paintings of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s in Hazleton’s biography of Virgin Mary, where she recounts its use as a contraceptive and abortion drug. Hazleton said she’s also found it in Seattle, at “the Korean spa that I go to occasionally.”
The plant has multiple subspecies, and one, Artemisia annua, is the source for artemisinin, a medicinal plant grown in East Africa. In 2015, Chinese researcher Youyou Tu received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering its efficacy against malaria.
Although living in Cook County might convince you otherwise, most people’s encounters with the bitter plant haven’t involved alcohol.
Drawing from a translation of eighth-century author Muhammad Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s life, Hazleton calls the drink “a kind of Arabian syllabub,” a dessert beverage made of milk, egg whites and honey. Wine is commonly included in recipes from the 1700s, the last point in time syllabubs were popular—but in an interview, Hazleton said she did not mean to indicate the Prophet was drinking alcohol. (Nonetheless, the Prophet took his favorite wife’s advice about his breath to heart. Hazleton writes, “Muhammad refused the drink the next time he was offered it.”)
Chicagoans can’t get a good Arabian syllabub anywhere these days, either with or without the wormwood kicker. A few years back, Wicker Park bar The Violet Hour offered a drink featuring sweetened egg whites, orange flower water and malört. But it seems to have been pulled off the menu. Sam Mechling, former Jeppson’s marketing director, says he’s never encountered a dairy-based malört cocktail, adding “I’ll challenge anyone,” to make one, the reward being “a very firm handshake.”
The followers of Islam wouldn’t likely join that particular contest. “I’m not sure when the ban on alcohol came in,” Hazleton says, but the fact is Muslims regard alcohol as proscribed. Perhaps they have a good point. There’s no need to drink malört. It won’t kill malaria (and the tropical infectious disease doesn’t exist in Illinois, anyway). Despite wormwood’s 1400-year cultural reach, special hometown status and a flavor that Mechling alleged would give you “minty breath,” refusing to drink something that A.V. Club bloggers say tastes “like a cigarette got put out on your tongue” may make abstainers smarter than the rest of us.