What level of commitment would a person have to show in order to be considered the world’s biggest fan of a brand of liquor? One way would be to always order the same drink at every bar, but what does that really prove? An even greater sign of commitment would be to fill one’s home with so much paraphernalia supporting your brand that friends and loved ones roll their eyes at you, but only your loved ones would really see how committed you were. In our opinion real commitment can only be shown in one way—ink in skin.
Sam Mechling, the director of marketing for Jeppson’s Malört, wanted to find out if there was someone willing to show that level of commitment to their unique wormwood-based liquor by getting the brand's logo tattooed on them. First, allow us to give you a crash-course in Malört 101. Chances are that unless you were born and raised in Chicago you have never heard of Malört; and those who have had the pleasure of drinking it will often shutter at the mere mention of the name. The booze has become the stuff of legend thanks to its, well, “unique” taste. Malört’s extremely bitter flavor allowed Carl Jeppson, the original purveyor of the brand, to sell Malört throughout prohibition without running afoul of the Volstead Act.
“There was a provision that allowed for the sale of medicinal alcohol—things like cough medicine—and they had used wormwood liquor to kill tape worms and treat menstrual cramps in Sweden for years,” Mechling explains. “So, Carl Jeppson figured this was his loophole to get rich. He would sell malort from door-to-door in Chicago. When cops would stop him and say that it was illegal to sell alcohol he would invite them to take a sip. They would be so horrified by the flavor that they would let Karl go on his merry way.”
Over the years, Chicagoans have gone from being horrified of that flavor to embracing it whole-heartedly. If there were a picture next to the encyclopedia entry for “acquired taste” it would undoubtedly be of a bottle of Malört. The liquor’s taste is so unlike that of any other liquor that it is difficult to properly describe the sensation, but Mechling was able to offer a pretty apt one.
“Malört tastes like a baby aspirin wrapped in a grapefruit peel, bound with rubber bands and then soaked in well gin,” Mechling says with a laugh. “It’s a little bit herbal and it’s got a bit of that grapefruit quality. Then it has this bizarre, burnt rubber, petroleum note.”
Even if Malört has been embraced by hardcore barflies in Chicago it’s easy to understand why Mechling expected a mild response when he created the tattoo contest. The actual turnout was well beyond the 10 to 20 Mechling had hoped for; hundreds of people responded with essays explaining why they deserved the tattoo more than anyone else. People told stories about ending dates on the spot because the person they took out hated Malört, while others shared heartfelt stories about pouring the drink on the graves of departed loved ones. Out of the hundreds of candidates there was one that immediately stood out above the others, Wyl Villacres.
“Wyl is Goldilocks, he’s perfect,” says Mechling. “He’s a genuine Chicagoan who lives within one mile of the hospital where he was born. He’s intelligent, he’s young, he has a respect for the past, and he drinks a shitload of malort.”
It is one thing to win an essay contest about your love of malort, it’s a completely other thing to follow through and get the tattoo. According to tattoo artist Pony Lawson, Villacres didn’t show any trepidation when it came time to permanently mark himself as a malort fanatic.
Villacres was one of the first people to be tattooed at Lawson’s brand new shop, MAYDAY! Tattoo Co. In fact, he was tattooed there weeks before the shop would officially open.
“I had to get the shop cleaned up and nice enough to do it first,” Lawson recalled. “I met Wyl and a couple of friends at the shop, we all had a shot of Malort and got to it. I think it came out quite well.”
Villacres chose to get the tattoo on the back of his arm, right above the elbow, a fairly painful place to have work done. Lawson jokes that it’s the perfect location for a Malört tattoo since it takes a bit of toughness to stomach both the shot and the ink.
For now, Villacres is likely to be the only guy bellied up at the bar with the Jeppson’s shield inked into his skin, but don’t be surprised if that notoriety is short lived. Jeppson’s plans on finally allowing boozehounds outside of the Windy City to taste their delicious beverage. Mechling says that plans are to expand slowly and only to areas that he believes will understand the ethos of the company. Cities including New Orleans, New York and Austin may potentially get their first taste of Malört in the not too distant future. Once it arrives Villacres will surely be joined by more devoted fans willing to ink themselves to show their love for the wormwood-based liquor.
Whether it’s your first shot or your thousandth shot— Malört’s unique flavor will always keep you on your toes.
“I’ll drink it and I won’t make a face per say, but it is a slap in the face every time,” Mechling says. “It surprises me. That’s why it never gets old, I’m not totally immune to it.”