Bäska Snaps med Malört is an accidentally international spirit: it’s a Swedish recipe produced for an American company by a French distiller. And strangely, it makes perfect sense. The American company, Bittermens, is known for its bitters. The Swedish recipe is (roughly) a sweetened aquavit that’s infused with wormwood, which is where the French come in. Who better to work with wormwood than an absinthe distillery?
Snaps, or schnapps, is what Scandinavians call aquavit and similar spirits. The Bäska part means bitter. The full name of the product contains a word Chicago drinkers will be familiar with: Malört. Jeppson’s Malört is an astonishingly bitter 70 proof spirit that’s been a Chicago institution since 1934. (For a great background on Jeppson’s, read this Wall Street Journal story). Bäska Snaps is similar to Jeppson’s Malört, but to be blunt, it tastes much, much better. Both products trace their heritage to a Swedish tradition of wormwood-infused spirits. Reimersholms, a Swedish company that makes a few kinds of aquavit (including O.P. Anderson), also makes a bitter one called Bäska Droppar, but it may be the only company producing wormwood aquavit in Sweden right now.
Bäska Snaps, which is 80 proof, is meant to be served cold, as it says on the bottle in Swedish (Serveras Kyld!), but it tastes great at room temperature. It’s very bitter, but it’s sweetened too. It has a clear herbal depth to it that Jeppson’s Malört does not—probably from the aquavit base. Despite the wormwood (less than 10 parts per million of thujone, for the absinthe nerds out there), it doesn’t taste much like absinthe. The flavor is actually a little closer to the Fernet style of bitter spirits.
I asked Avery Glasser, who founded Bittermens with his wife Janet, some questions about Bäska Snaps via e-mail.
What was the inspiration behind Bäska Snaps? As a bitters and bitter liqueur formulator and producer, I’m always thinking about new products and new ideas. About a year ago, Janet and I were in Chicago and of course we had some Malört. That reminded me of a bitter schnapps that I had a long time ago when we were living in Germany… so I did a little research and found out that the Malört is a derivative of the traditional bitter schnapps of Sweden. The more research I did, the more I learned that there is a real vibrant tradition of people making their own bitter schnapps by taking aquavit and infusing it with a variety of botanicals (almost always including wormwood)—but only one major producer of it commercially.
To me, it’s an endangered style—at least commercially endangered—and it’s too important to lose, as essentially it’s the Scandinavian equivalent to the classic Italian amari. So, when fate put me in contact with one of the oldest producers of absinthe in France, I realized that it was something that I was essentially compelled to make.
How is it made? Is any of it produced in Sweden or is it all made at once in the French distillery? We make everything from scratch at the French distillery. We start from neutral spirits and first create a traditional herbal aquavit with caraway, rhubarb, licorice, citrus and other botanicals. We then filter it out and blend in distilled wormwood, dilute it, and finally sweeten it with a touch of beet sugar.
Was it made for the European market and then imported, or was it made for the U.S. and distributed in Europe as well? Though we always thought of it as a product we would like to see in America, we designed it specifically for Europe with the idea of making something that captured the standard Swedish palate. We started bringing it into the U.S. a few months after it launched in Europe.
Why the liter bottle instead of the U.S. standard 750ml? Part of it is that we wanted the product to be very affordable, and the cost of the 1-liter glass bottles was actually better than the 750ml bottles, and on top of that, there was a matching 500ml bottle which we use in Europe. Considering that it’s traditionally served cold and in shots, it meant that a single bottle would last a bar a bit longer as well.
What is distribution like in the U.S.? We’re pretty much available nationwide. If you take the control states out of the equation (where we are available through special orders with direct representation in NH, VT, ME, WV), we are available today in NY, MA, RI, MD, DE, DC, FL, SC, LA, IL, CA, NV, AZ and WI. We’ll be in CO, NJ, CT, MS, MN, MI and TN within the next 30-60 days. We always keep a current list online.
Who do you think the customer for this is? Is it the absinthe guy? The aquavit fan? Or the Fernet Branca enthusiast? All of the above and more. We’re seeing adoption in cocktail bars, at absinthe bars, at dive bars and in fine dining (especially in Scandinavian themed restaurants).
How are people drinking it so far? Straight and chilled (and very often just straight and room temperature), though bars like Bad Decisions in Baltimore are already coming up with some great cocktails using it. When I put it together, I didn’t have any cocktail aspirations for it, but then again, when the monks made Chartreuse, they weren’t thinking about cocktails either. I’m happy to see bartenders reaching for it and using it both as a modifier and as a primary spirit.
Bad Decisions is going through so much of it that most likely by the end of the week, they’re going to be our first bar with Bäska Snaps on tap. A second bar in Florida will have their tap by the end of the month and a few more bars around the country have asked about a tap program.
For food pairings, I’m a big fan of serving this with smoked fish and/or caviar, or with fried foods like pierogis and pelmeni.
Will there be other similar products coming soon? Maybe an aquavit? Anything’s possible…