The holiday season turned bitter over the weekend as workers from a Wrigleyville bar known for its love of Jeppson’s Malört accused ownership of Chicago’s polarizing liquor of plagiarizing their ideas.
“Look @JeppsonsMalort we’ve sat quietly while you built your brand this fall copying our infusions and selling them as house bottles at CH at a filthy profit without crediting us. But THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT. Quit stealing our mixology ideas without attribution,” a message posted Friday night from the Nisei Lounge X account reads.
Look @JeppsonsMalort we’ve sat quietly while you built your brand this fall copying our infusions and selling them as house bottles at CH at a filthy profit without crediting us.But THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT. Quit stealing our mixology ideas without attribution. https://t.co/3lDR1tRaou— Nisei Lounge Chicago (@NiseiLounge) December 2, 2023
Nisei bartender Val Capone helped usher in the bar’s own candy cane Malört in 2016 — before CH Distillery purchased the Jeppson’s Malört brand two years later. Nisei has built a reputation on serving Malört, and Capone says they’ve taken pride in carving out a niche. Before CH began selling Malört mini-bottles, Capone remembers her colleagues hand bottling their own for wedding guests as favors, even printing their own mini labels.
The love of Malört is more than a trendy gimmick at Nisei, as Capone says it a genuine expression of their love for their native city. It led toward taking some extra candy canes used as bar decorations and using them for the first batch of infused Malört seven years ago.
“Malört was so bad,” Capone says. “They’d say ‘there’s no way someone would drink this for pleasure.’ But guess what? I do, and I always have.”
The announcement of CH Distillery’s own candy cane-infused Malört was the last straw for Capone. Since October, CH Distillery has released limited-edition Malört infusions and sold bottles for $150, including pumpkin spice, a Thanksgiving-themed infusion that lays hints of cranberry, turkey bouillon, and sage, and — as of last week — candy cane Malört.
But after Nisei’s post on Friday, a chorus of supporters ripped CH Distillery and by Saturday morning, Jeppson’s Malört apologized without mentioning Nisei: “In our rush to do good we missed acknowledging those who came before us in the quest to make Malört worse.”
The marketing behind each flavor touted a charity component. Responding to a barrage of social media criticism over the weekend, CH Distillery announced the effort has raised $45,000 for groups like Vision for Children at Risk and Lemons of Love.
I do not own a liquor brand but if I did and I decided to pirate recipes developed by bars who love my product years ago and sell that product for $150 per bottle, I would at least give said bars some sort of credit. But hey, that’s just me.— Matt Lindner (@mattlindner) December 2, 2023
Nisei staff tells Eater they felt “betrayed” that CH had ignored their efforts, which include selling merchandise. Capone says they’ve worked hard to make Nisei a welcoming bar and made Malört a key component of that. Capone leaves her partner and father on Thanksgiving and Christmas to open the bar for strangers: “We have hosted ‘Malortsgiving’ for the better part of a decade now,” she says.
Capone says she feels her dive bar, one with sticky floors that need replacing, is being overlooked for what they’ve contributed to the city’s bar culture and how they’ve help make Malört popular even before the board games and social media marketing campaigns.
“If they would have taken ‘Malortsmas,’ I would have gotten arrested for the first time in my life.” Capone says.
Capone says she’s make countless flavors from sugar plum to coffee to garlic to giardiniera. This year, she’s using green candy canes for a new flavor called “Grinch Blood.” Plenty of users on the former Twitter site sided with Nisei over the weekend. Nisei has joked for years that its bartenders in their dimly lit dive practice innovative mixology, the kind that would rival the Aviary or Violet Hour, two of Chicago’s fancier cocktail bars. Nisei has pioneered Malört experimentation, infusing the beverage with ghost pepper and creating Malört wine coolers. In 2013, it even partnered with Dimo’s Pizza on a pie using Malört-infused chicken mole. The experiments inside the North Side dive bar come from a place of fandom where the team tests boundaries and has fun with fans of the bitter Chicago-made liquor, one notoriously savored by two-fisted drinkers all over town.
Some longtime Malört fans and Nisei staff also take issue with the cost of CH’s bottled infusions, claiming the company is inflating prices to take advantage of Malört lovers beneath a smokescreen of charity. CH has increased Malört distribution since purchasing the liquor and folks can now find bottles in exotic locales like Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. Customers can even ship it to select states. Capone says she would have liked CH Distillery to partner with Nisei somehow so they could amplify the charity aspects of the effort.
“They could have said ‘hey Nisei, we’re going to these overly expensive, ridiculously priced bottles, even though it’s a working-class drink; this Swedish liquor used to be for the working man — and now we’re going to charge $150 for a bottle, but we’re doing doing this for a charity — would you want to help?”
CH Distillery founder Tremaine Atkinson tells Eater that the company wanted to be broad with its apology because other bars beyond Nisei have contributed to the infusion culture. Infusions are a curious topic in Chicago because state law made them illegal until 2015.
You guys see this post from 2018? Aaron there is doing something called “Giving us credit”. It’s a hallmark of civil society and not hard. Well not hard for most…. https://t.co/PdQOSNkjZM— Nisei Lounge Chicago (@NiseiLounge) December 3, 2023
For a city like Chicago known for its world-class bars, the law was embarrassing and showed how out of touch the state was with the hospitality world. The reasoning, back then, was concern over sanitary conditions — if an infusion isn’t done properly, there is a chance of contamination. But with recipes widely available via the Internet and home bartenders in online communities, drinkers are better educated than ever before, and the cleanliness issue isn’t as pressing. Springfield lawmakers did away with the infusion ban in December 2015 when they repealed Illinois’ ban on happy hour.
That saga just shows that even under the cloud of the city’s enforcement, Nisei bartenders had such love for Malört that they were willing to risk fines to create candy cane and chicken mole flavors.
When it came to Atkinson’s explanation of not naming any bars due to fear of exclusion, Nisei brass stiffened up saying that staff from other bars, such as the Green Lady and Will’s Northwoods Inn (both in Lakeview), asked for permission before creating their own Malört flavors.
Here’s a list of some of the best reactions to Malört-gate.
No one owns infusions. People have been doing it for decades. Sounds like someone is being a baby tbh. Good on you guys.— Josh Engel (@joshfromcincy) December 2, 2023
There’s no way a brand that has had so much overwhelming account support and city-wide consumer loyalty could possibly fuck up all the free marketing they gotten to grow as much as they’ve had in the last few years. No way.Jeppson’s Malort: Hold My Beer. https://t.co/UMj8WP5Jzq— Liz Garibay (@LizGaribayChi) December 3, 2023