“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Revelation 8:10-11)
Bitterness of biblical proportion will certainly kill you. But a little bit can be good for your constitution.
Federal regulations prevented Jeppson’s Malort founder George Brode from marketing his aggressively bitter wormwood spirit on its supposed medicinal qualities. But at least some of his customers believed in it–particularly in its value as a digestif. One man brought a bottle of kidney stones into Brode’s office, claiming his faithful consumption of Malort had helped him to pass them, according to Brode’s former secretary and Jeppson’s honcho Pat Gabelick. “George also said that the girls on the [distillery] line–if they had cramps–they would take a shot and it would help.” At one time Malort was bottled with a dried wormwood stem for authenticity’s sake, but Gabelick says it became too labor intensive and Brode halted the practice. “People just called and complained bitterly,” she says (cue rimshot).
Gabelick says she still occasionally hears from annoyed customers that claim the taste of her powerfully bitter liqueur has changed over the years. “Sometimes I have people call me and complain and say it’s sweet,” she says. “They don’t mean it’s sweet the way they describe it. They just mean it’s not as bitter.” There’s good reason for that. Gabelick imports dried wormwood from Switzerland, but it’s possible the botanical is harvested from different regions in Europe–once she saw Romania listed on the shipping documents. The intensity of the bitterness can also be affected by variable harvests or by how old the herb is when it’s macerated. She ought to mark the bottles with vintages.
During our research, Gabelick gave me a big Ziploc bag of dried wormwood to make my own poison, cautioning that it was from an old batch and probably not particularly potent. Still, after I stuck my beak in the bag and took a whiff, everything tasted like Chernobyl for the rest of the day. So I had high hopes for making my own.
I started with an empty two-gallon kimchi jar and filled it with the dried wormwood stems, flowers and all, then topped it with three liters of Wyborowa Polish vodka. (At 80 proof, my Malort would be a bit stronger than Jeppson’s.) The liquid took on the familiar amber hue within a few hours. I gave the jar a gentle shake every day for ten days, until today, judgment day.
I don’t normally take my Malort in the daylight, but as this was in the name of science, I whipped up a cheesy six-egg omelet with hot sauce and Hungarian salami and put it away for lunch. I then opened up the jar and strained a measure through a coffee filter. It had the same subtle and deceptively sweet nose that disarms so many first-timers before that initial cruel shot. I braced myself threw back the glass and–GACK–yep, that’s Malort.
Just to prove I was among the 1 in 49 “two-fisted drinkers” that George Brode claimed would continue to drink Malort after the first “shock-glass” (and to make sure no one I foist this upon is going to get thujone poisoning), I downed another one. Three hours in, the eggs have digested and there are no apparent ill effects beyond a slight headache and the persistent Malorty bitterness in the back of my mouth.