Malort has built a reputation around Chicago as the bitter spirit that people love to hate, but at Red Door, Jay Schroeder is spreading love for the stuff. From first sip, he fell in love with malort, and has been on a crusade of sorts ever since, showing Chicagoans and out-of-towners how good malort can actually be. He’s currently aging some in barrels as an experiment. We’ll be there to sip it in a few months, and suggest you do the same (if you’re brave enough).
Musings on malort
RIA: Let’s talk malort. What are your personal feelings on malort?
Jay Schroeder (Red Door, Chicago): I love malort. I was first introduced to it while working at the Drawing Room. It was my first night on the floor, and we were all working a private event. The staff was cut in phases, and we went back to the service bar afterwards to grab a few drinks before heading out. Somehow the topic of malort came up and someone said, “Give one to Jay, he’ll HATE it.” They spent the next five minutes trying to psych me out hard, and then we all did a round. As everyone intently watched my reaction, I felt the bitter tinge dig down into my jaw and my face lit up. It was awesome! I had never had anything that intensely bitter before. As for my current feelings on it, I among others have my suspicions that something has changed in their production. For me it’s just not that bitter anymore. Either that, or I’ve completely wrecked my palate. I wouldn’t be surprised either way.
RIA: Why do you like featuring it at Red Door? What do customers think of malort? What is the general reaction?
Schroeder: I like featuring malort for two reasons. The first and most important is that I think it’s delicious. I’d never go against my own palate just to ride a trend. If sambucca started trending hard next year, I still think it sucks as a product. The second reason I like featuring malort is because it’s so uniquely Chicago. We get a lot of neighborhood traffic, but in the event we have out-of-towners, I think it’s a really cool thing to share with them. I’ve traveled a lot to learn about spirits production, and every time I head overseas, I always bring a few bottles of malort with me. It tends to be more well-received in Europe than it is here anyway.
It can be dialed back to play as a subtle grapefruit note, or can be used in full palate-wrecking force.
~ Jay Schroeder, Red Door, Chicago
RIA: Tell us about the barrel-aged malort you’re working on.
Schroeder: When I took the program at Red Door, I inherited a few nice mini-barrels. I know barrel-aging cocktails is trendy right now, but I just don’t believe in it because the science behind it is shaky. Not to say that aging cocktails is pointless, but I just don’t think oak barrels are the right way to do it. Oak is perfect for aging spirits though. My venture in aging malort is half joke and half scientific endeavor. Will it mellow out the bitterness? Enhance it? Will it completely ruin the barrel for good? Who knows. The only difference between aging a cocktail and aging a spirit is timeframe. The malort will have to hang out for six months minimum, whereas any cocktail left in there for that long will have already spoiled. I’ll probably break it out in stages, starting about five months from now.
RIA: How do you feel malort is best enjoyed (or best tolerated)?
Schroeder: I think malort is a beverage primarily intended for shooting purposes. I’m not a huge fan of doing shots all the time; I’d much rather sip and enjoy booze, be it the cheap stuff or pricey. Malort, however, is adverse to sipping. I also find using it in cocktails to be indispensable. It can be dialed back to play as a subtle grapefruit note, or can be used in full palate-wrecking force.
RIA: Have you done any cocktails with malort, or do you plan to?
Schroeder: The menu right now at Red Door features the Chicago 75. It’s a riff on the classic French 75, which is gin or cognac, lemon, simple, and Champagne. A friend of mine went out to Portland and saw that they were doing a Portland 75 with white whiskey, lemon, simple, and PBR. She challenged me to come up with Chicago’s own riff, which I gladly accepted. I chose to feature locally produced North Shore Aquavit, lemon, honey, Jepson’s malort, angostura, and Goose Island 312. There’s only about a quarter ounce of malort in the drink, but it’s presence can surely be felt. It adds a bitter grapefruit-like element without which the drink wouldn’t be complete.