Things I Have Put in My Mouth Lately: Malört and Irn-Bru

This past weekend was one for the ages as far as swallowing strange liquids is concerned. Top three for me, at least.

For the uninitiated (i.e. most folks outside the Chicago area, where it was formerly produced and is primarily distributed), Jeppson’s Malört is a type of bäsk, or Swedish wormwood schnapps. You may recognize wormwood as “that stuff in absinthe that’s supposed to make you trip balls,” if you’re a teenager or an ill-informed, pearl-clutching moral guardian. Neither absinthe nor Malört contain anywhere near enough thujone to make you hallucinate and/or die. The one time I tried absinthe, all I got was a mild buzz followed by a faux-consumptive cough that lasted for a week afterward. I guess you could say the experience was historically accurate in that sense.

Anyway, the worst you can say about wormwood in distilled alcohol is that it’s super gross. Not long after I first came to Chicagoland in the summer of 2005, I saw the famed Malört face for the first time. I don’t have a funny story to tell about the circumstances because my long-term memory is a sieve that strains out virtually everything that isn’t personal humiliation or obscure trivia, but suffice it to say that I was not the one making the face. My friends who were native to the area filled me in and, like the true champions they are, never tried to subject me to that particular rite of passage.

As the years passed, I started to consider it something of a point of pride to have dodged the Malört hazing for so long. Every time I missed a round of shots for the out-of-towners, I gloated a bit. I confided in others that, despite all my years in Chicago, the stuff had never crossed my lips. More than once, I was told I was tempting fate.

This brings us to Friday, which you might recognize as having been April Fool’s Day. I certainly did, finding myself savvy to every trick thrown my way. Oh, I was so smart, friends. Nothing could touch me.

That night I found myself at a dive out in Oak Park, where a group of us had gathered to do karaoke and celebrate a visit from out-of-town friends. We were introduced to my friend Eve’s new fiancé, who promptly bought us a round of shots.

I eyed mine with suspicion. “What is it?”

He hesitated. “Wwwhiskey.”

It didn’t look like whiskey, but I’m not a whiskey drinker to begin with so I didn’t feel like I had grounds to question it. I said, verbatim, “This had better not be Malört,” and downed the shot.

It didn’t taste like whiskey, either. Not malty, not peaty, just sort of a nondescript vague citrus.

“Huh. That wasn’t bad.”

My friend Madison was chuckling by now. “That was Malört.”

“Fuck you. No, it wasn’t.”

But already I could taste evidence to the contrary creeping up in the back of my mouth. I can only describe it as the taste of having been uncomfortably intimate with a pinecone with halitosis, combined with the lingering bitterness of waking up the next morning to find the other half of the bed empty.

I did my best to wash the taste out with Strongbow. That failing, I got part one of my revenge by making the bar listen to my terrible Alison Moyet impression, complete with a two-minute instrumental break, the ultimate karaoke foul.

Part two, you ask? Let’s just say I’m going off-registry for a wedding gift.

—–

I first heard about Irn-Bru as a teenager. My constant internet spelunking led to me becoming quite close friends with a couple of Scots. I even used calling cards to dial them from a pay phone outside the public library, back when that was a thing. At some point, one or both of them mentioned Scotland’s favorite soft drink. According to a slogan from the ’80s, it’s “made in Scotland from girders”:

I’ve been passing by Celtica Gifts on Montrose for months, and every time, the sign advertising Irn-Bru has caught my eye. Yesterday afternoon after brunch with a bunch of webcomic knuckleheads, a few of us stumbled into the shop. It was time.

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Its label describes it as a “citrus fruit flavor soft drink.” Spoiler alert: Scotland has strange ideas about citrus, possibly because it sees the sun 4.5 days a year. The label also clarifies that it’s “not a significant source of iron,” so I guess I’m going to have to figure out another anemia remedy and stop worrying about giant magnets. It says it was manufactured in Glasgow, but there are U.S. bottle refunds listed and, as you can see, the imperial measurement is listed first. Combined with FD&C Yellow No. 6 being listed as the only artificial color, this is pretty clearly a version produced specifically for import. Have fun turning your nose up at my minor inauthenticity!  (Note: Yellow No. 6 is used in the original under the name Sunset Yellow/E110, but there’s at least one other coloring that’s gone missing.)

Back at home, I worked up the nerve to open the bottle and give it a sniff.

Let me tell you a story: When I was a child, I was terrified of the dentist. This was a problem, given that my baby teeth were shatteringly fragile. After I had to be put under general anesthesia to fill a cavity so I wouldn’t flop out of the chair like a fish and get my face drilled through, my parents started taking me to a dentist who specialized in working with children. Dr. Mandelaris had arcade cabinets in his waiting room, model trains circling the office walls, and an assortment of toothpastes and flosses for kids who hadn’t yet developed a taste for mint.

Irn-Bru smells exactly like bubblegum-flavored dental products circa 1994.

I managed to capture my immediate and delayed reactions to the first sip.

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The second look is more of confusion than disgust. It does taste better than it smells, not quite as cloying. Still, it is very sweet and only marginally citrus-adjacent, with much more of a bubblegum flavor. I’ve also seen it described as similar to cream soda, which isn’t entirely off, though it has more of a (very artificial) fruit note.

Verdict: definitely not made from girders, unless you’re building to Candy Land code. I appreciate the ironic juxtaposition of marketing such a fluffy drink in such tough terms, even if I suspect panic over it not being “man” enough had something to do with it. (The more recent ads I watched have given up the pretense of toughness, but are still by and large pretty laddish.)

Would I drink it again? Possibly, but at $2.95 a bottle, don’t expect me to go forming a habit. Caledonophilia has its limits.

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