Jeppson’s Malört: Birth of a Marketing Marvel

by Ken Walczak

Standard Malort Shot Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia.  I hear it went down something like this. 

Dramatis Personae

Tomas Jeppson, CEO of Jeppson’s Unguents, Solvents, and Salves, Ltd., doting eldest child of Carl Jeppson, company founder.  Cared for Carl during 30 years of declining health, dementia, and dotage, until the patriarch’s death at 113.  Solid.  Boring.  Always suspected that Carl loved youngest child Siggi more.

Siggi Jeppson, youngest son of Carl Jeppson, heir to a substantial chunk of the Jeppson’s company via Carl’s will.  No official title with the company.  Seventeenth place finisher, Greater Tampa Jet-Ski Paint Job Contest, 1994.

Hildy Jeppson, Jeppson’s Board Member.  Sister to Siggi and Tomas.  It’s a family company.

Paul Andersen, CFO of Jeppson’s.  Suspected by the Board Members of being secretly Norwegian.

Five Jeppson’s Board Members.  Perplexed; dubious.

Setting: Jeppson’s Malört Boardroom, the recent past.

Tomas: As you can see from this report, unguent sales have held steady during the third quarter of this fiscal year, while sales of Jeppson’s solvents and salves showed a slight decline.  Curiously, a comprehensive company audit revealed that we are actually seeing a small amount of profit from something called the … “DIARC”?

Hildy: Ah yes, the Division of Intoxicating Alcohols for Recreational Consumption.  I’ve been meaning to talk to  you about that.

Tomas: Jeppson’s makes intoxicating alcohols for recreational consumption?

Hildy: Yep.  Since 1942.  Just one kind of intoxicating alcohol: Jeppson’s Malört, a wormwood-based bitter digestive.

Tomas:  Malört?  That’s a terrible name.  What does it taste like?

Paul:  Like the rubber arm pad on a pair of Civil War crutches.

Board Member #1:  Like eating a tire fire.

Board Member #2:  Like baby tears and gasoline.

Board Member #3:  Like bug spray, with Robitussin.

Board Member #4:  Like a delicate combination of cat piss and earwax. 

Board Member #5:  Like sucking on a mentholated cough drop, while getting punched in the face. … Oh wait, no.  That’s Fernet.

Tomas: Dear God.  Why am I the only one who didn’t know about this?

Hildy:  You never come out for Happy Hour with us!  And because, until very recently, the only other people who drank the stuff were a handful of bikers in middle-of-nowhere, Indiana.

Paul: We think they use it for initiation rituals.

Hildy: Yep.  In fact, I had a Marketing intern do a study for me once, years ago.  We couldn’t find a single individual who reported drinking Malört of his or her own free will.  It’s so unbelievably foul that fully 100% of survey respondents said they consumed it mistakenly, ironically, or pursuant to some kind of dare.

Tomas: How do you sell a product like that?  And how can it possibly be that sales are increasing?

Hildy: Well … I put Siggi in charge of the Intoxicating Alcohols division.

Tomas: You did what??

The boardroom door flies open.

Siggi, entering: What it be like, Jeppsters!

Hildy: … and I invited him to this meeting.  Hello, Siggi.

Board Members mumble non-committally.  “Hey.” “Hello.” “Bite Me.”  Etc.

Siggi:   Members of the esteemed Board of Directors … Jeppsons … bros … have I got a story for you.  Would you like to hear it?  Bitchin’!  Here it goes.  I’m down at Bernie’s the other night, right?  Chillin’ with my dude Dougie Dunkirk … You know?  The Double D?  We’re stone coldlampin’, doin’ what we do, when he starts lookin’ at the bar all funny, screwing up his face and whatnot, and then lookin’ back at me … and I’m thinkin’ he’s givin’ me a signal: like, The D’s about to PULL A DOUBLE D!  Hs trademark move — double-fisting Dead Matadors!  (That’s tequila, Kahlua, and Red Bull, for those of you not “in the know.”)  Of course, Dougie’ll double-fist anything — that’s why they call him the Double D!”

Tomas: Surely it’s just because his first and last names —

Siggi: Cram it, T-Jepps!  Did you sit next to Dougie Dunkirk in grades 3 through 11, including both years in grade 9?  Did you fingerblast his sister in the corn maze off I-65, past the exit with the White Castle, when you were 13?  No?  You did not?  Then I believe you should leave any and all pronouncements about the lore and mythology of Mr. Dougie Dunkirk to yours truly, i.e. me!

Tomas, to Hildy: This is precisely why we do not invite Siggi to the board meetings.

Hildy: I promise this is going somewhere.  Tell us about your idea for the Malört, Siggi.

Siggi: Right.  So I stand up on my bar stool, right, all ready to lead the crowd in the Double D chant, when Dougie points out this dust-covered bottle at the far end of the bar.  He’s all: “Dude, isn’t that your name on that booze?”  And I’m all, “Holy husmanskost, it is!”  I’d straight-up forgotten that Dad’s solvent company made an intoxicating alcohol for human consumption!  Well, obviously I pull out my ID, point out the name, and order up three shots — one for SigMaster J (that’s me), and a double dose for the Double D.  The bartender shrugs and gives them to us for free.  Says something about “no one ever drinks it anyway.”  I kill mine right away — clang! — and Dougie kills his — clang! — and, you know, it tastes just like a sock drawer rammed up an elephant’s ass.  I mean just like our house around the holidays, growing up.  So I start feeling all warm and happy, thinkin’ about being a kid at Christmas, and then — clang! — I hear Dougie kill the second one, followed immediately by — bam! — a barstool falling over and — plop! — the Double D hitting Bernie’s floor.  I hop off my stool and lean down to him, all set to call an ambulance and what have you … and then Dougie sits up, head wobbling around like those cartoon birds are circling it.  I’m all, “D!  D!  You ok, man?  What happened?”  And Dougie is all, “Siggi, I am not man enough to double-fist that Jeppson’s liquor.”  Just like that it hits me — whump! — that’s the slogan!  “Malört: ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH FOR OUR TWO-FISTED LIQUOR?

Tomas: That’s the worst slogan I’ve ever heard.  And the second worst story, right after the one with the corn maze and Dougie’s sister.

First of all, it assumes all potential Malört drinkers are men, or at least people who want to be “man enough” for anything.  For another, it’s aggressive and confrontational.  You don’t shout dares at your target demographic; they tend to react badly.  And finally, no one in the liquor business has “dared” people to drink since the Second World War!  It just isn’t done!

Hildy:   I thought that, too.  All of that, actually.  But we’d forgotten the division even existed, and Siggi went ahead and told them to put the slogan on all the bottles.  Plus, this … mis-spelled drivel he got Dougie to write.  She reads from the back of a Malört bottle:

"Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malört reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malört. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, “My Malört is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.”

It is not possible to forget our two-fisted liquor. The taste just lingers and lasts - seemingly forever. The first shot is hard to swallow! PERSERVERE [sic]. Make it past two ‘shock-glasses’ and with the third you could be ours…forever”

Tomas: That’s the most illiterate claptrap ever committed to paper.

Siggi: But the SALES are up, yo! 

Paul: It’s true.  The Division is turning a profit for the first time in more than a decade.

Siggi: Because people are, like, responding to the drink.  They love the slogan!  Dougie says if things keep trending this way, people will be drinking Malört on purpose!  They’ll be taking bottles to their friends in cities besides Chicago … mixing up sophisticated Malört cocktails … trying to replicate that unique and delicious Malört flavor at home…

[A long pause.]


Tomas:  BWA-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! indeed.  Seriously.  Hildy, Siggi: the stuff is terrible.  It’s like drinking from a cuspidor.  It’s not going to catch on.  Keep your ridiculous slogan on the bottle; God knows it’s too expensive to print new ones.   Let’s get back to the unguents that actually make this Company money.