Led by Jeppson’s Malört (“The Champagne of Pain”), the boldly bitter liqueur known as bäsk is slowly shifting from an I-dare-you-to drink to an underground hit in the cocktail world.
What It Is
As Jeppson’s Malört has grown in popularity in the U.S., so has the confusion over what it is. The word Malört—Swedish for wormword—is simply part of the brand name. The style is technically a wormwood-based schnapps, known as bäsk brännvin (bäsk, for short). Harsh, with an overwhelming anise note, bäsk tastes similar to absinthe, but with a burning throat-punch on the finish.
How It Got To Your Bar
Carl Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant who moved to Chicago in the early 1880s, ran a cigar shop and sold bottles of his bäsk to local bars. The claim it was medicinal—it allegedly killed parasites— helped it survive Prohibition. Chicago eventually embraced it as a harsh, local novelty. In the early aughts, former The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman began touting it, tongue firmly in cheek. Now, Jeppson’s, and several new bäsks, are hitting the shelves.
How to Drink It
Traditionally, in Chicago, bäsk is downed as a shot*. But more and more enterprising barkeeps are harnessing (or, rather, taming) its signature bitterness in cocktails, often as a rinse, or in place of amaros. One of the tastiest is the Lexington Crusoe, served up at Maison Premiere, in Brooklyn. There, bäsk is mixed with gin, sloe gin and fresh lemon and pineapple juices. For a Chicago-born bäsk cocktail, check out Drumbar’s below.
*Bäsking for Trouble
Ask a Chicago bartender for Jeppson’s and you’re going to get a grin, a shot glass filled with gasoline-colored (and tasting) liquid, and a camera in your face, waiting to capture your cringe.
The Bottles to Buy
Wormwood notes expressed in a singular burning bitterness that has made grown men cry.
Letherbee R. Franklin’s Bësk
Hints of floral botanicals like elderflower and juniper soften, somewhat, the wormwood.
Bittermens Bäska Snaps
Strong and pungent, yet with pleasing citrus flavors.
The Drink to Try: The Player’s Ball
Recipe courtesy Drumbar, Chicago
1½ ounce Pisco
½ ounce Letherbee Bësk
¾ ounce lime juice
½ ounce strawberry syrup
¼ ounce vanilla
Stiegl Radler, to top
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and pour into a Collins glass with fresh ice. Top with Stiegl Radler.