Belly up to a bar in Dallas these days (especially one that's an industry hangout) and chances are high you'll see shots of Fernet tossed back by the customers or staff. The Italian amaro has become an industry favorite, loved for its bitter, almost painful bite; it's a bartender's handshake. Eventually the bitter made its way to the other side of the bar, becoming a customer favorite as well.
Before Fernet, bartenders typically ordered shots of Jameson. It has endured as one of the most popular whiskeys for a quick fix, in Dallas and elsewhere. In short: customers love to throw back what they see their favorite bartenders throw back. It's how many of us drink.
That's why I was concerned when recently introduced to Malort. Fernet gained its popularity because it's a punishing spirit. Strong-flavored, bitter and high in alcohol, Fernet is hard on novice drinkers. Taking a shot without wincing is a rite of passage, an act of bravado, a chance to connect with your inner drunk on a spiritual level. Fernet is popular because pain.
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But if Fernet is punishing, Malort is an instrument of alcohol-driven self-flagellation that can leave permanent scars. Rugged, unrelenting, brutal: these are the marketing terms printed on the bottle to convince skeptical drinkers to buy it.
While visiting Washington D.C. over the holiday break I ran into Malort in a dive bar that served Chicago-style hot dogs. Imagine slamming back a glass of yellow bile laced with more than enough ethanol to stir up a good burn. Now imagine getting kicked in the nuts when you swallow. That's what drinking Malort is like. In fact, it causes enough people to recoil in horror that the grimace has been given the name "Malort face."
Malort isn't readily available in Dallas, so bartenders haven't been shooting it much, and you haven't either. But it is here, however quietly. I called a number of bartenders, and while many didn't have it some did, though they spoke in hushed tones about bottles that employees had smuggled from Chicago, where Malort is made.
Still, trends travel, and Chicago is not that far away. If bartenders continue to prefer punishing drinks that validate their drinking prowess, there's a decent chance Malort will end up at more bars here. Stare at the picture above until that label is burned into your brain. Got it? Now, if you ever see it again, run.