Quick: what’s the worst drink you ever tried? If your answer wasn’t “Malort,” then you haven’t truly experienced the worst booze in the world. Malort is a Scandinavian-style wormwood schnapps (35% ABV, 70 proof) that has a reputation as one of the foulest things you can put in your mouth.
A lot of people have written about the foul taste and strange allure of Malort over the years. It has been described as tasting like “extreme dirt”, “poison”, and “exactly like drinking a tire fire.” Others have said the smell is like rubbing alcohol, turpentine, ballpoint pen ink, and embalming fluid. In June 2011, Malort won “The World’s Worst Liquor” contest on NPR’s podcast, How To Do Everything.
And yet, comedian John Hodgman loves the stuff and even offers it to members of his audience at live events. Even though it’s only made by one company in the United States, the gunk has a devoted following in Chicago (the former location of the distillery that made it back in the day) and nationally among the biker bar crowd and hipsters. On top of that, there’s a Flickr pool devoted to capturing the faces of people as they take their first sip of Malort and make hilarious grimaces of anguish.
So how is it that this drink can be simultaneously reviled and celebrated? What is it about this dank-tasting beverage that draws drinkers back in for another taste? How can something be both revolting and intriguing? In short, Malort is the car accident of schnapps: impossible to turn away from.
It sounds like hyperbole to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to try this hard-to-find bottle of booze, but it really does have a uniquely awful taste. It even looks disgusting. The color is a brownish-yellowish-green—a color that, while it may be a little harsh to say so, can best be explained as “bong water brown.”
When it comes to drinking Malort, it’s truly a strange experience. Before you have your first sip, you think, “It can’t be as bad as everyone else has built it up to be.”
Then, you take a little bit into your mouth, and swish it around. It doesn’t taste all that bad—at first. It just tingles the same way any vodka might. It even has a hint of something sickly sweet. But once you swallow, the full force of the Malort comes at you: bitter, grassy, chemical, acerbic. But those four words don’t do it justice.
Your tongue starts to feel fuzzy, like it’s sprouting hair. Earwax-flavored hair. A pain builds right between your eyes. And the bitterness just keeps building, lingering in your mouth for minutes after you swallow. Malort is the gift that keeps on giving, even when you wish it would stop.
But then something strange happens. You feel the urge to have another glass. Maybe it’s some subconscious way of living out the phrase “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” but you want to try it again. And you want your friends to try it, too. Malort is schadenfreude in a glass.
Want to try the stuff for yourself? It can be hard to find, depending on your location. But Malort can be bought online: just expect to pay through the nose. Between the cost of a bottle and the cost of shipping, you might pay around $50 for a chance to taste this uncommonly bitter, uncommonly addictive liquor.