Even longtime fans of Jeppson’s Malört, Chicago’s prodigal spirit, may not truly understand the power the bitter beverage holds. For example, at Bub City, the country music-themed barbecue restaurant in River North, general manager Tim Muldoon says servers sometimes may pointedly suggest Malört to large groups as a way to increase check totals.
“Chances that someone sitting at the table is a Malört fan,” Muldoon says with a chuckle.
There’s nothing nefarious about the practice, but that depends on perceptions, if drinkers fear the yellowish drink with a heavy reputation. Muldoon and Bub City are such big fans of Malört that they are hosting a special $50-per-person event on Thursday, July 14. Attendees of Bub City’s Barrel Aged Malört Fest will get a chance to drink specialties like Bub City’s own barrel-aged Malört, stored for six months in Jeppson’s bourbon barrels. Other drinks include Malört Jell-O shots (Muldoon says he served one to Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises President R.J. Melman; his boss approved), and a special Cosmopolitan called the “Malortian” that swaps vodka for Malört. Over the weekend in Avondale, Revolution Brewing debuted a sour ale aged in Malört barrels. Bub City will also serve that beer, called Second Hand Freedom. It’s a refreshing lemonade beer perfect for a hot day.
“It came out better than anyone thought,” Muldoon says.
Muldoon has worked for Bub City for six years, and before he worked in Little Italy, bartending off Taylor Street at bars with sticky floors like Hawkeye’s and Drum and Monkey. These are the type of taverns that most associate with Malört, not River North bars that lure tourists. But times are changing. CH Distillery, based in the West Loop, now produces Malört, and has increased distribution across the country. It’s not just found inside old-school dives.
Some may think Malört has jumped the shark while the subject of a festival hosted by Chicago’s largest restaurant group. The tickets are available on Tock, the service created to book reservations for Alinea, Chicago’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
But more Malört in the hands of more people is also a way to spark creativity. Beyond the drink specials the festival will feature some fun food specials. Mini Chicago-style hot dogs and pretzels will be served with a special Malört mustard. Bub City, being a barbecue restaurant, is also experimenting with Malört used to make a Carolina Gold-style sauce. Muldoon acknowledges that bourbon pairs with barbecue best, but he’s hard pressed to say anything negative about Jeppson’s finest.
“Nobody comes to Bub City for Malört,” he says. “But at the same time, why not come to Bub City for Malört?”
Malört also brings social media cachet. Muldoon says an Instagram Reel featuring the drink posted by Bub City last month attracted the most plays of any Reel put out by a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant.
That reel, featuring those orange Jell-O Malört shots, got the attention of CH Distillery and led to the festival. Malört is just so hot right now.
“That’s the thing with nightlife in Chicago,” Muldoon says. “It’s so important to come up with fresh ways — you’re not going to always win every time — but you have to figure out ways to draw guests.”
Bub City’s Barrel Aged Malört Fest, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday July 14 at Bub City, 435 N. Clark Street, tickets $50 via Tock.