The bartender sets a glass of thick, tawny red liquid in front of me. At the bottom is a heap of dark pellets; were the bar lighter and my brain less addled, I would immediately identify them as raisins. After inhaling the fumes, I throw back a mouthful, and the hot drink burns the back of my throat, warms my stomach, and starts my head spinning. The sweetness that comes after the liquor’s bite lures me into another swallow. I’ve never had another drink like it: my first “glogg.”
Glogg (pronounced glug) is a traditional Scandinavian drink: port wine and other liquors (often grain alcohol) mixed with spices, nuts, and dried fruit and served hot. The recipe varies, however, according to the whim of the maker.
My ancestors had names like Snowberg, Windquist, and Paulson. Why hadn’t I been raised on this stuff? Later I consulted my father and he said, “Oh, I think maybe your grandmother made it once or twice.” His nonchalance confirmed my suspicions: my forebears dropped the glogg habit the minute they hit the New World.
In the absence of any familial preparation, I am forced to turn to strangers: specifically, the glogg drinker next to me, who will identify himself only as Jack. Seated on bar stools at Antlers, 5316 N. Clark, we’re smack in the middle of Andersonville, a neighborhood that was once primarily Swedish.
In the old days, Jack tells me, there used to be a pot of glogg simmering on every stove in the neighborhood. These days, glogg makers are few and far between, and they’re a tight-lipped bunch. “You know Mike Royko’s barbecue thing?” he asks. “Glogg makers are like that [about their recipes].”
He tells me I have missed the Antlers Gloggfest–a competition/celebration that took place last December–but that most bars in the area still serve glogg through February. The person to talk to about glogg, he says, is Dan Carlsen, who makes Antlers’.
Carlsen, a jolly Swede whose appreciation for glogg has settled around his midsection, has been making the stuff for about 15 years. He’s made Antlers’ for the past year: “I go there a lot, and they didn’t have any, so I said, ‘Oh, I’ll make you some.'” He made 75 gallons this year.
Most glogg makers are careful, if idiosyncratic, about their product, he says, and everyone has his or her secrets. Carlsen prefers tawny port to the regular stuff; he also throws in rum, bourbon, and Canadian whiskey. He uses honey (instead of sugar), cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, peaches or apricots, nut extracts, and sometimes fresh lime. “I make it sweet,” he says. “I like it sweet.”
Joyce Heitler, whose father used to run the Stockholm Tavern (also on Clark Street), likes it sweet, too. She uses whole nuts, orange peel, and raisins, and she sticks to port and grain alcohol. “There are a lot of different variations,” she says, “but it all tastes pretty much the same when it comes out.”
Carlsen disagrees; he says that even his different batches don’t always taste the same, and that the flavor of most glogg changes over time, “like spaghetti sauce.”
Glogg seems to have gotten its start back in the 17th century, when Scandinavians would travel by sleigh to visit various relatives at Christmastime, covering many snowy miles over the holiday’s 12 days. Each time they arrived somewhere, they’d be greeted with a glass of meaded wine.
Meading–heating and spicing wine or beer–was a way of covering up the skunky taste of old liquor. Glogg makers added sugar as a stimulant for weary travelers. After one cup of glogg, the travelers would switch to coffee or tea: no one sat around and got drunk on glogg.
Carlsen says Scandinavians don’t make glogg the way they used to: “If you ask a Swede to make you glogg, he’ll find the cheapest red wine on the shelf, he’ll buy a packet of spices, and he’ll throw every kind of booze he can find in it to make it strong.”
It takes about an hour and a half to cook up a batch of glogg, Carlsen says, and sealed bottles will last on the shelf for years. Heitler says opened bottles last a few weeks in the refrigerator.
Carlsen and Heitler shun both the commercial varieties carried by German and Scandinavian delis during the Christmas season and the spice packets sold by a few liquor stores throughout the winter. Carlsen says liquor store glogg is as awful as packaged Manhattans; one reason glogg has never caught on among bar owners, he says, is that the good stuff is homemade, and homemade is expensive, costing the glogg maker about $7-$8 a liter.
Despite its expense, however, glogg probably will not become the trendy crowd’s chosen drink. Even among Swedes, it’s seldom the young who make or drink glogg. “I didn’t do it when I was young,” Carlsen says. And although he insists that “there’s always someone that does it,” Carlsen admits the tradition could be dying out. Heitler says she doesn’t know anyone besides herself who makes it nowadays: “Even my father doesn’t make it anymore.”
At the bar, Jack had told me that part of the reason for the Antlers Gloggfest was to spread the word about glogg. As it is now, he said, “you gotta know Swedes to know about glogg.” And the Swedes aren’t talking: “They don’t get the idea the drink is good enough for the rest of the city.”
Unfortunately for glogg supporters like Jack, Gloggfest attracted “mostly pretty much the usual bunch,” according to Heitler. There were only two or three glogg makers at the fest.
Clearly depressed by glogg’s current status, Jack would like everyone to have the same appreciation for the drink that he does, but he knows better. “The tradition is dying out,” he says.
My glass is empty, but the raisins that had been sitting at the bottom are loaded. One by one, in an unsophisticated, some might even say drunken manner, I pry them out and devour them.