It’s not hard to get my friends talking about small batch bourbon or single malt Scotch. Nobody is shy about sharing their opinions about which bottles are underrated or over-hyped. And forget about mentioning Pappy Van Winkle, unless you want to be there all night. But, curiously, when it comes to cinnamon-flavored whiskey Fireball, everybody immediately clams up.
The only thing they’ll say on the topic is that they’ve never tried the liquor, but I don’t believe them. In my home state of Virginia, Fireball ranks third in total sales of all spirits. People buy a lot of Jack Daniel’s, they buy a lot of Smirnoff and they buy a lot of Fireball.
In fact, according to industry newsletter Shanken News Daily, Americans were estimated to drink an astonishing 4.5 million cases of the stuff by the end of 2016, which makes it one of the biggest sellers in the country.
The first time I bought some—I don’t think it was the first time I’d ever had it, but it might have been—I was in a liquor store in Dickinson, North Dakota, stocking the bar on a hunting trip. (Read: Buying about 90 gallons of bourbon.) It was like that scene in Thelma & Louise when Geena Davis is buying snacks, before they’ve really committed to their life of crime. She grabs a small bottle of Wild Turkey, then another, and then finally grabs the whole display of minis.
As the sun set over the farm fields, we drank the airplane-size bottles of Fireball I bought. It was the perfect thing. Easy, sweet, a little funny. There’s a reason they sell the stuff in three-and-a-half-liter party boxes.
Everyone likes it. Even if they pretend they’ve never had it.
It’s so popular that it’s inspired a raft of copies as well as even some ironic homemade versions served at craft cocktail bars. My friend Toby Cecchini, who runs Long Island Bar in Brooklyn and is author of bartending memoir Cosmopolitan, recently tried one of these concoctions being offered at the Melrose Umbrella Company in California. Cecchini can certainly spot trends, and he will, begrudgingly, admit that he created the modern version of the Cosmopolitan cocktail, which went viral before viral was a thing.
While he insisted he’d never drunk any actual Fireball, his head was swimming with possibilities for producing his own take on it. Where would the heat come from? “I was thinking Sichuan pepper corns, cinnamon, some actually fierce peppers like cayenne or whatever and maybe some base note stuff like mace or cardamom, then a bunch of sugar.”
That did, indeed, sound good. But I had a better (and easier) solution for him.
A couple of years ago, right after my book Chasing the White Dog came out, I was in a diner, eating grits with a moonshiner. Not one of those guys who pays taxes, but an honest outlaw moonshiner. This particular guy produces a dizzying array of flavors of shine. Well beyond your typical damson and apple pie. We’re talking mango, Creamsicle, banana, peach cobbler—he’s like the Baskin-Robbins of mason-jar hooch. I had, over the course of the previous night, had an opportunity to try a fair number of those flavors. We are talking about real talent and a high degree of technique.
But talking to moonshiners about their techniques is about as much fun as trying to modify a botched college schedule in the registrar’s basement office with an administrator who proudly displays a plaque reading, “Your lack of preparation is not my problem.” Let’s just say moonshiners aren’t forthcoming.
However, sometimes you get lucky.
“That cinnamon stuff,” I said. “That’s Red Hots, right?”
And by his telling smile I knew I’d caught him.
So, when Cecchini started dreaming up his multi-step recipe for a Fireball concept, I suggested that there might be a simpler path: We would flavor whiskey with Red Hots candy.
To which he answered: “That’s redneck brilliance.”
I chose Fighting Cock Bourbon as my base because it’s a solid product and at a price that wouldn’t cause regrets if my experiment went awry. It has some oak muscle and is a very respectable 103-proof. I admit its name didn’t hurt, either.
The initial attempt was OK. I just sort of shrugged and dumped a whole bag of Red Hots into a pint Ball jar, topped it off with whiskey, and shook. (This can’t count as “infusing,” can it?)
My first observation, which came to me rather quickly: Candy dissolves. Fast. Believe me when I say that you can think of making this after lunch, and have it ready for when your guests show up for dinner.
I brought that first pint over to a friend’s house with a pocket flask of the real thing.
“I’ve never had Fireball,” he said, predictably. Looking thoughtful he added: “But I see why people would drink it.” We tasted both whiskies, and while we all agreed that my Red Hots version was fun, it was also way too sweet.
Side by side, where Fireball is slick, my attempt was rough-hewn. I suspect that if I’d used a softer bourbon, say Four Roses Yellow Label, or, as Fireball does, a Canadian whisky, my drink would soften a bit. But I like the 103-proof booming warmth and the oaky punch of the bourbon’s char coming through the sweet-cinnamon flavor.
The proper proportions were easy to figure out after my original attempt—half of a five-and-a-half-ounce bag of Red Hots “infused” in a 16-ounce mason jar filled with Fighting Cock Bourbon. I like to keep it in my freezer. It’s a great icebreaker, it’s a laugh, it tastes really good—it’s like Fireball, in other words.