Letherbee Bësk liqueur, $44.99 (750 ml)
The back story
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to be more daring in your drinking, have we got a sip for you.
Bësk comes via the decade-old, Chicago-based craft distiller Letherbee — a company that aims to offer spirts that are plenty distinctive and full of flavor. In the case of Bësk, we’re talking a take on a distinctively bitter Swedish style of herbal spirit, also often referred to as bask or malört, that is flavored with wormwood. Perhaps the most famous example — at least in the U.S. — is Jeppson’s Malört, a sip with Chicago ties as well, that has been described as everything from a “tastebud assassin” to the equivalent of “biting into a Band-Aid.”
The Letherbee team says they weren’t necessarily looking to one-up Jeppson’s, though Brenton Engel, founder of the distillery, calls that company’s malört an “unremarkable” version of the spirit. (The Jeppson’s folks didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for comment.) Robert Haynes, the veteran mixologist who crafted the recipe for Letherbee’s Bësk, also says he didn’t have the Jeppson’s version in mind per se. Rather, he wanted to find a way to build a spirit around wormwood but create added flavor and complexity with other botanicals, such as elderflower, juniper, gentian and grapefruit peel. “Wormwood can be a bully of an ingredient,” Haynes explains. (By the way, Haynes recently created perhaps the ultimate bottled cocktail with his $150 Gold Fashioned, but we digress.)
Which is not to say that Haynes or the Letherbee team wanted something that was easy drinking in Bësk — this is still a spirit very much defined by its bitterness. “it’s an acquired taste,” Haynes says. “It’s a niche product,” Engel notes, pointing to the limited sales (around 500 cases a year). At the very least, the idea was to create “something for everyone to talk about,” Haynes adds.
What we think about it
We’ve never had the opportunity — for better or worse — to try Jeppson’s, so we can’t make any comparisons between it and Letherbee Bësk. But we can say that Bësk is an intense mouthful — bitter and bracing to the point you can’t quite fathom coming back for a second sip. And yet, you somehow feel compelled to do so. Maybe it’s that unmistakable hint of grapefruit that grabs your palate. Maybe it’s just the sheer desire to prove you’re brave enough to get past that first taste.
Does that mean we like Bësk? Not quite. That’s a bit like saying you like going to the dentist. Or waiting on line at the DMV. There are things in life that are inherently unappealing. At the same time, Bësk’s allure may be finding the appeal in the unappealing. In short, we’re not tossing away the bottle just yet.
How to enjoy it
Clearly, Bësk can’t really be “enjoyed” in the traditional sense. But Haynes does suggest serving it cold from the freezer for a kind of extra-sensory experience (or maybe the chill dulls the taste?). Engel says he likes pouring it into a grapefruit radler, the German-style drink that blends beer and fruit soda. We’d say just try it by itself, slightly cold, to get an initial handle on it. Then, you can see if you want that second sip…