A Chicago Handshake is a shot of Malört, followed by an Old Style, preferably a tallboy. It’s the classic welcome gift, the first drink for visitors fresh off a plane from O’Hare, or an Amtrak from Union Station, or a car that’s entered the city limits. “You haven’t had Malört yet?” a Chicagoan will say, gobsmacked that you’ve managed to make it 24 hours in the city without someone thrusting into your hand this thin, clear shot and its pale, grainy chaser.

Some 90 percent of Malört is sold in Cook County, Illinois, which contains Chicago and its many suburbs. The alcohol was crafted by a Swedish immigrant in the 1930s. He sold his homebrew door to door until an attorney purchased the recipe and started selling it himself as both a medicinal and recreational beverage. In Swedish, Malört literally means “moth herb” and is the name for wormwood, the plant also used in absinthe.

The Singapore Sling is a tad more refined: a mixture of gin, cherry liqueur, lime juice, bitters, pineapple juice, and club soda. It was crafted in the Raffles Hotel in 1915 by a Hainanese bartender, a pink drink for imperialists and colonialists alike, a soothing beverage to ease the heat as they wound down their days. Today, people can drink Singapore Slings in cocktail bars all over the world and from premade mixtures sold at Changi Airport.

I’ve never had a Singapore sling. I’ve had three Chicago handshakes in the last year, grimaced three times as the Malört oozed down my throat, its texture light, its aftertaste bitter. “Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate,” its original label read. I describe it as herbal without the ‘h’ to which my Midwestern friends ask if that’s how we too say the word in Singapore. It isn’t. That’s an American thing, skipping the ‘h’ for convenience. But I like saying the word that way, especially to describe my preferred type of bak kut teh. ‘Erbal Bak Kut Teh. Like skipping over continents with a missing fricative.

Those same friends described Malört as a floral cough syrup. Close, but not quite there. The actual flavour neighbour to Malört is the only time I ever had Brand’s Essence of Chicken, the little jar oddly coming free with a random food delivery during “circuit breaker” (Singapore’s pandemic lockdown). I didn’t know what to do with it. My parents never prescribed it to me because they, unlike other exam-focused Singaporeans, didn’t believe in performance-enhancing drugs (that’s how I’ve chosen to interpret their actions). People online said that it’s best drunk warm. I put it in the microwave for two minutes, unaware of its potent rate of heat transfer. The jar came out burning to the touch. I waited for it to cool, its pungent aroma filling our kitchen. I waited. I took a sip. I burnt my tongue. I hated the taste, even more bitter perhaps because I accidentally cooked it. But it was undeniably ‘erbal. Like Malört. So, if you want to have a Chicago Handshake but live in Singapore (or anywhere outside of Cook County, Illinois), try overheating a jar of Brand’s Essence of Chicken, taking a sip, letting the liquid slide down your gullet, and chasing it with a sip of Tiger Beer. That’s a Singaporean Chicago Handshake.

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