What if we were to tell you that other distilleries are starting to produce their own versions of Malort? You’d throw your phone/computer into a dumpster and go join a convent? OK, well unfortunately for you and your electronics, over the past few years many Swedish and Scandinavian wormwood-distilled spirits have gained a massive amount of popularity as people learn to appreciate a bit of bitterness in their lives. These spirits are collectively called bäsk (or bësk) liquors, from the Swedish word for bitter, and they’re all slightly different. This demand has caused a myriad of craft distilleries to try their hand at making a bësk worthy of Chicago’s demanding palate.
Many of these distilleries are in fact local to Chicago, and are happy to add to the pain and suffering of Chicago drinkers. Evanston’s FEW Distillery has been making a bësk called Anguish and Regret for a few years now, a spirit that offers much of the bitterness that the category is known for, albeit with an added craft flair.
When we asked FEW’s Paul Hletko why -- why god, why -- FEW would make something like this, he shared the inspiration behind the spirit with us, and it was one that really resonated.
"We've had Anguish and Regret for a while, and launched a product with that name a couple years ago," says Hletko. "We were inspired by the love of the odd and creative, and the passion that Chicago has for such beverages. Also, we remember that girl that broke our heart sophomore year, and the taste of the tears, and felt we could make a drink to mimic that emotion. We intended to only release a limited batch of it, but demand is such that we've now launched in several more states, and even England. People are really connecting with Anguish and Regret, as if it were something they were already feeling."
When we asked him to describe the taste of Anguish and Regret, he responded that it “delivers all the flavor of going home in someone else's broken high heels and torn sweatpants, with a bit of the flavor of salty cheeks and runny mascara on the top note, and some dumpster runoff in the bottom. It finishes with a blast of sadness and a realization that you could have done much more with your life, and perhaps your high school guidance counselor was correct.” I’d personally add that that in addition to all the bitterness, there are pleasant herbal and lemony flavors to be found that lessen the punch a bit.
FEW isn’t the only distillery making bësk either. Chicago’s Letherbee has their own recipe for the stuff, and for connoisseurs looking for a bit more licorice flavor, Bittermen’s Bäska Snaps is also easily found at Chicago liquor stores. These companies realize that there’s something essentially enjoyable about these bitter, hard-to-palate spirits, something beyond a desire to be hip or fashionable.
Perhaps it’s a philosophical thing. Living in Chicago can be hard when the lake is frozen solid nine months out of the year. Coming together to enjoy, or at least to try to enjoy a truly Chicagoan spirit can be a beautiful, much needed reprieve from the cold. Because at the end of the day, these drinks are meant to be shared. Nobody in Chicago buys a shot of this stuff for themselves unless they’re buying another for a friend at the same time. And even though buying a shot of bësk for a friend isn’t the most generous thing in the world to do, it leads to a communal experience that is full of laughter and embarrassment.