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Mostly, though, people have been talking about Jeppson's Malort, originally made in Chicago by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson and now manufactured in Florida but sold only in Chicago (and soon Wisconsin). Since New Year's, though, Letherbee Distillers has been making a Malort for the Violet Hour that, until now, has been available only at the bar. R. Franklin's Original Recipe Malort, named for Violet Hour beverage director Robbie Haynes (his middle name is Franklin), who developed the recipe in collaboration with Letherbee distiller Brent Engel, was released for retail sale this week.
They've made 30 cases so far, with plans to double that in the near future, Haynes said. It'll be available at Provenance Food and Wine, Green Grocer, Life's a Cabernet, Noble Grape, Joe's Wine Cellar, and Binny's (Chicago, Elmwood Park, Skokie) and cost $35 for a one-liter bottle, though distribution is taking a little while and none of the stores have gotten it yet (Life's a Cabernet will have it on Friday, Engel says). I talked to Haynes and Engel about why they'd want to make a spirit that's so famously reviled; near the end of the interview Haynes asked (rhetorically, I think), "How did we get here?" But both of them seemed pretty happy about it.
Why make Malort?
Robby Haynes: With the way people are drinking and eating these days, the timing seemed right. In the major cities, I've seen the evolution of palates in general. Whereas five, six years ago—I remember when chartreuse first became a big ingredient. We hadn't seen that before in bars. I think the natural progression of that was into amaro. People are just more adventurous now. People will eat a pig's face and not think twice about it.
It seems only natural that people are more adventurous when they drink, and bitter as a flavor profile is no longer a dirty word. I think people are into that. I prefer things that are bitter to things that are sweet. I think people are generally more open to interesting flavors.
What was the process of making it?
Haynes: I've been making a lot of aromatic bitters at the bar using the same ingredients, and I've been doing that for years. So as soon as I was like, let's do this and let's do it right, Brent was the first person I called.
Brent Engel: Robby was actually integral on helping give feedback on the development of my gin recipe.
Haynes: There are a couple reasons I went to Brent with this idea. One is that I knew him, and I thought he might be crazy enough to take this on. And two, I thought the gin turned out phenomenal. It's bold and interesting, and kind of turned its back on current gin trends to make things more palatable and more mellow. It seemed like a natural fit.
How did you develop the recipe?
Haynes: There are a handful of things that pair really well with bitter flavors, and wormwood is extremely bitter on its own when you macerate it. There are certain things that mirror or echo that bitterness in a way that I find pleasant. Floral things like elderflower and, obviously, bright citrus, grapefruit. Anyone who tastes the malort will pick that up immediately. A little bit of anise and juniper. It was really simple. It just makes sense. There wasn't a lot of R&D. We've subtly kind of tweaked and refined this basic idea.
What makes it sweet?
Engel: There's about a third of a pound of sugar in every bottle. It's got a shitload of sugar in it.
Haynes: It has to. Otherwise it would just be unbearably bitter.
It's still a pain in the ass to work into cocktails. No shit. I thought it would be a piece of cake, but it still took some time to find recipes that were—we want the cocktails to be good, and nothing should be shocking for the sake of being shocking. To find drinks that had broad appeal where you could also focus on that really bitter flavor from the wormwood, it was still difficult. More so than I thought it would be.
I initially started trying to do things with grapefruit and with honey, and traditionally that's how you drink a bitter liqueur. But because the Malort has grapefruit rind in it, the rind and the pith, it's like when you drink a couple beers and then take a Percocet. They just compound each other.
[talking about Amaro dell'Erborista, which is much more bitter than Malort] My palate is such these days—just because of bartending and everything, working with this Malort where we're tasting constantly—that's what it takes for me. I need that. I love it.
Engel: I mean, hell, we'll do shots of Angostura bitters. There are several bars now where, if you ask them for a shot of bitters they don't think twice.
Haynes: That's where it's going. That's what's happening next. Someone's just going to say, well, fuck it. The whole potable thing, out the window. Just straight up, here's a shot of bitters.
Engel: Over the top hoppy beers are really big right now, and that's bitterness.
Haynes: I don't love IPAs. It's too much. I want a fucking High Life. Or something that's a little nicer than High Life, like a nice pilsner. I want beer that tastes like water. Good water. Not cheap like Budweiser. But I like mellow beer, expensive whiskey, bitter shit. Bitter liquor.
Engel: I think part of the appeal of it is that it's challenging. That's kind of why you'd buy a shot of Malort for your friend from out of town. Unless you just naturally love that shit, it's an acquired taste.
A lot of bartenders have tasted it all. They've tasted everything on every spectrum available. Stuff that is hard to incorporate into cocktails is fun, because if you can do it well you're on the forefront of calling yourself an inventor. And bartenders, their job is to invent shit. So being on the challenging side of things, I think, is to our advantage.