Years ago, I had this bottle of moss-flavored schnapps from Iceland, and it was the nastiest thing I’d ever tasted in my life. It tasted like the smell of Green Lake when it’s all loaded up with duck shit in the summer. High up in your sinuses, bilious, metallic. Mold and Kaopectate and oxidized copper. My eyes are watering just from thinking about this shit.
Every time I’d have people over and I happened to mention that this liquor was the worst taste I ever fuckin’ tasted, everybody would immediately want to drink it. The men especially, for some reason, would line up at the freezer to try the Icelandic moss schnapps, taking swigs and then cheerfully hollering, “Disgusting!” or “It’s not that bad!” variously. They enjoyed this.
Malört is also this way. If you’ve heard of Malört, you’ve heard about the specter that surrounds it: that Malört is soooo vile, oh my god, why does it even exist. I personally don’t think it’s bad—it’s just wormwood, ya pussies—but I recognize that it has the same power as the moss schnapps. People sincerely love hating Malört.
If you’re not familiar with the stuff: Malört is short for Jeppson’s Malört Liqueur, a Chicago-produced brand of Swedish liquor called bäsk that’s made from herbs, chiefly the bitter, metallic-tasting wormwood. (Malört is the Swedish word for wormwood and translates to “moth herb.”) You may know this flavor from absinthe, although it’s a little buried in absinthe under the stronger flavors of anise and fennel. Jeppson’s Malört has a rep for being a Chicago drink, a blue-collared, two-fisted drunk’s drink, and until a few years ago, it was almost impossible to find in Seattle, but now it’s got nationwide distribution and you don’t have to go to Chicago to import it manually anymore. Any local place with a Midwestern bent—Windy City Pie, Smarty Pants, Petoskey's—is almost certainly gonna carry Malört. Black Cat Bar in Belltown has it on tap.
Oh yeah, and it’s mostly known for being revolting. Per a review on Drizly: "Malört is famously challenging to drink, with a flavor that includes notes of gasoline, grapefruit, sweat, wax, fire, mineral oil, and bitterness." Same shtick as the moss schnapps: People really take a gleeful pleasure in proclaiming how gross they think it is, and they’ll get real hammy about it. It’s what makes people like horror movies too, I guess, or announcing that they’re creeped out by the word moist. We all know this joyful squeal of disgust.
That said! Some people honestly like Malört, and one of them is Mike Jochum, whose miniature new bar, Ruby, just opened across the street from the Greenwood Fred Meyer a few weeks ago. It is the Seattlest thing in the world, by the way, to open a craft cocktail bar inside a 300-square-foot former computer repair shop, as Jochum has done. Love it. Delighted. Jochum’s an alum of scads of Seattle bars—9lb Hammer, Maude’s Hot Corner, Targy’s Tavern, the hallowed Waterwheel—and he’s aiming for more of a plush cocktail parlor on this project, with the dark wood and the Victorian wallpaper, accented by a collection of dog paintings, because it’s a dog bar. (Ruby is the name of Jochum’s ex’s corgi.)
First of all, Ruby’s a fun bar to visit because from the outside, amidst the traffic crush of NW 85th, not only does it not really look like there’s a bar inside of there—it definitely doesn’t look like, if there even were, it would be open. You can’t hear anything from the street, the door is solid wood, and the sole window is obscured from the inside. If you try this door, what will happen? You could be met with anything. A black airless vacuum. A goat. A panel of glowing lights and wires. And then you open it and a raucous little mini-world is revealed, and there’s drinks and usually a dog inside.
BTW, I know it’s popular to refer to bars like this as speakeasies, but it’s incorrect about 90% of the time—a speakeasy is a secret chamber within another bar, which this is not. Ruby is just a bar, if a very neato one. But yeah, the suspense and the great dramatic reveal here is still pretty irresistible. It’s like some Legend of Zelda shit where you throw a bomb against the stone wall and it goes dee-doh-doo-doo-dee-doo-doo-doh and then a door in the wall opens. There’s a shimmery feeling about being at Ruby, like you know a sexy secret.
Well, Jochum may be slinging craft cocktails, but he’s still got a real thing for working-class old Malört. And dogs. Last week, I took a seat at the bar and immediately met Hazelnut the beagle, along with her owner, and she alternately kissed my hand and tried to burrow into my lap as Jochum explained his love affair with Malört.
“Well, I’d already been obsessed with Malört for a long time?” Jochum said. “And then a guy who works here came up with Malört Mondays kind of as a joke, where we offer cheap Malört shots. I was like ‘Sure!’ So we started doing that, and then there was a Malört cocktail competition at the Octopus Bar a few weeks ago, with other Seattle bartenders and that gave me a few new ideas. So we’ve added Malört cocktails to Malört Mondays, and the Malört Mullet is a result of that competition.”
The Malört Mullet is made of Jeppson’s Malört, Plantation Original Dark Rum, allspice dram, lime, passionfruit, and housemade orgeat. Jochum serves it in a Vegas-style ceramic tiki glass with a blonde lady with her titties out painted on the side, topped with a desiccated citrus wheel and a dusting of cinnamon. The citrus and herbal notes play well with the rum, the fruit juice, and the almondy orgeat syrup. The allspice dram, made out of allspice berries, provides a little pimento zap to the palate and is a classic counterpoint to anything with rum in it, particularly the molassesy Plantation Dark. These kids are all old friends from Tiki Drink High School.
None of these ingredients really play well with the Malört, though. You can smell it comin’. Again, I don’t mind the stuff, but I don’t know that you can successfully mix it with anything on earth and have it lay down and behave. It’s just Malört, immutably, forever.
I do like this cocktail, though! It’s medicinal first, but then herbal and floral, fruity and tart. It’s intense. The passionfruit gives it a POG-like juice box effect, and the bitter digestif tones down the sugar. There’s also a note of like… a dusty old canister of horehound candies from a thrift store, or maybe… Necco wafers? The pink Necco wafer, specifically, with that distant whisper of spearmint. Plus all the clovey-cinnamony tiki flavors, plus the zip from the allspice dram, plus cough syrup. I dunno, guys, I’m always a sucker for the weird shit.
It’ll rosy up your cheeks and warm up your palate, that’s for sure! Thanks to the dark rum, I theorized to Jochum. “Well, yeah, but there’s just a shitload of booze in this drink,” he intoned, “so that helps too.”
For the record, upon tasting the Malört Mullet, my buddy commented, “This tastes like some preserved food that was excavated from the wreck of the Titanic.” He didn’t mean this positively, uh, I don’t think.
Well. Whether or not the Malört Mullet is empirically good, it’s still true that you should check out sweet little Ruby and try out some of their less debatably delicious cocktails, like the Garden Party: rosé cava, Uncle Val’s Gin, Campari, grapefruit, and orange bitters, served over the bar’s signature Campari-infused Ruby Cube. They make a fine Negroni as well, with a few variations available, and there’s a long list of amari to play around with.
Most of all, it’s fun to hang out in this pretty little cocktail hole, in a place you would never expect one, where you can see some ceramic titties and meet a dog. And have fun grossing yourself out, I guess, if that’s the kind of dude you are about Malört. Some think it’s fun. Ruby will afford you the opportunity to find out.