Letherbee Bësk Liqueur, $ 44.99 (750 ml)
If one of your New Year's resolutions is to be bolder while drinking, we've got a drink for you.
Bësk comes across decade-old Chicago-based craft distiller Letherbee – a company that aims to offer spirits that are very distinctive and full of flavor. In the case of Bësk, it is an interpretation of a characteristically bitter Swedish herbal brandy, which is also often referred to as Bask or Malört and is flavored with wormwood. Perhaps the best-known example – at least in the USA – is Jeppsons Malört, also a sip with Chicago connections, who has been described as a "key-bud assassin" to "biting a plaster".
The Letherbee team says they weren't necessarily looking for a single Jeppson, though Brenton Engel, founder of the distillery, describes the company's Malört as the company's "low-profile" version of the spirit. (The Jeppson folks didn't respond to a MarketWatch request for comment.) Robert Haynes, the veteran mixologist who developed the recipe for Letherbees Bësk, also says he didn't have the version of the Jeppson per se in mind. Rather, he wanted to find a way to build a spirit around wormwood, but use other plants such as elderflower, juniper, gentian, and grapefruit peel to create additional flavor and complexity. "Vermouth can intimidate an ingredient," explains Haynes. (Incidentally, Haynes recently created what may be the ultimate bottle cocktail with his $ 150 Gold Fashioned, but we're digressing.)
Which is not to say that Haynes or the Letherbee team in Bësk wanted something light – this is still a spirit that is strongly influenced by its bitterness. “It's an acquired taste,” says Haynes. “It's a niche product,” notes Engel, pointing out that sales are limited (around 500 boxes per year). At least the idea was "to create something that everyone can talk about," adds Haynes.
What we think about it
We never had the opportunity – for better or for worse – to try Jeppson’s, so we cannot make any comparisons between him and Letherbee Bësk. But we can say that Bësk is an intense bite – bitter and invigorating to the point where you can't quite imagine coming back for a second sip. And yet you somehow feel compelled to do so. Maybe it's that unmistakable touch of grapefruit that grabs your taste buds. Maybe it's just a pure desire to prove that you are brave enough to overcome that first taste.
Does that mean we like Bësk? Not quite. It's a bit like going to the dentist. Or wait online at the DMV. There are things in life that are inherently unattractive. At the same time, Bësk's attraction may lie in finding the calling in unattractiveness. In short, we're not throwing the bottle away yet.
So enjoy it
Of course, Bësk cannot really be “enjoyed” in the traditional sense. But Haynes suggests serving it cold out of the freezer for some sort of extra-sensory experience (or maybe the cold is tarnishing the taste?). Engel says he likes to pour it into a grapefruit shandy, the German drink that mixes beer and fruit soda. We'd say just give it a try, slightly cold, to get a grip on it. Then you can see if you want the second sip …