It’s a measure of just how successful “Fireball” has become that there are so many competitors trying to get a piece of the cinnamon whiskey action: Jack Daniels now offers “Tennessee Fire,” Early Times has “Fire Eater,” there’s a Canadian flavored whiskey called “Catch Fire,” and Jim Beam has come up with “Kentucky Fire.”
Even those who hate the whole category, feel obliged to bow before Fireball.
“I won’t carry them,” one proud liquor store owner I know says of flavored whiskeys.
“Well, except for that,” he says, sheepishly pointing to bottles of Fireball, “which I have to have.”
Now there are hot-cinnamon tequilas: Jose Cuervo “Cinge,” Peligroso Cinnamon, something called Gas Monkey Cinnamon Tequila, and a Fireball sister liqueur called “Tijuana Sweet Heat.”
There is even a beer trying to get in the game, a development that Sazerac, the maker of Fireball, did its best to squash.
The company settled a lawsuit last month against North Carolina’s Stout Brewing Co, accusing them of infringing their Fireball trademarks with a “Malt Specialty Beer” called “Fire Flask.”
The complaint? That the beer came in a bottle with a cap and label that is not only similar in color to Fireball’s but shared with the cinnamon whiskey’s label a red devil icon. The brewery has agreed to change its packaging.
Sazerac is understandably protective of its newly and spectacularly lucrative franchise. In 2011 Fireball’s retail sales were a mere $1.9 million. Two years later Sazerac sold $61 million-worth of Fireball in stores, a figure that more than doubled last year.
Fireball has been leading a trend that has embarrassed and enriched distillers in equal measure—the astonishing surge in flavored whiskeys.
In 2008, flavored whiskeys accounted for only about 108,000 cases—or 0.2 percent of the 54-million-case market for whiskey in America.
Flavored whiskies finally broke the million-case mark in 2011 (when Fireball got going in earnest); by 2014, liquor companies moved nearly six and half million cases of flavored whiskey in the U.S., according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, accounting for over 11 percent of the entire whiskey market in America.
Michael J. Keyes is in charge of North America for Brown-Forman, a company whose best-known product is Jack Daniels.
A few years ago he talked about the burgeoning market for flavored whiskeys, and let on that the whiskey-makers’ strategy was perhaps less about creating new tastes for consumers than it was about grabbing up precious liquor store real estate, territory that had been monopolized by flavored vodkas.
“Whiskey has grown enormously, yet it still gets far less proportional shelf space than vodka. I think many retailers feel that they have to stock every flavor of vodka,” Keyes said in a 2012 interview with the industry publication Beverage Network.
“Why is it that every new vodka flavor deserves shelf space whether it sells or not, but whiskey has to scratch, claw and fight for it? We’ve got to change the way the industry views whiskey.”
This is a classic strategy across industries: Fill up retailers’ shelves with brand extensions—whether it’s new flavor variations of established soda brands or different scent versions of the top-selling laundry detergents—and you crowd out competitors.
Even if the extensions don’t sell particularly well, they hobble the other guy and that’s enough. Which may explain why, among the dozens of flavored vodkas Smirnoff sells, are such infinitesimally differentiated variations on the sugar theme as “Fluffed Marshmallow,” “Whipped Cream,” “Kissed Caramel,” and “Iced Cake.”
The flavored whiskey craze hasn’t quite reached the insipid saturation point of flavored vodka, a collapsing category that long ago jumped the shark with such abominations as “Loopy” (Three Olives Vodka’s homage to Fruit Loops).
But there are distressing signs. Consider the newly released “Uncle Bob’s Root Beer Flavored Whiskey,” which is a sort of sixth-seal portent of the coming flavored-whiskey apocalypse.
When pressed about the booming sales of flavored whiskeys, the proud distillers of Kentucky rather shamefacedly say that these are not liquors for experienced whiskey drinkers, but rather a sort of introduction to whiskey-drinking for newbies (though, of course, they are quick to add, newbies of legal drinking age).
No doubt it is true enough that those consuming the growing quantities of sugared and spiced and fruited liquor are young—in particular, those who are young enough to fancy that knocking back shots is a grown-up pass-time, and untutored enough to need something easy to knock back.
But are they any good?
I recently tasted more than a dozen flavored whiskeys to see what all the fuss is about. (Oh, what I won’t do for you, gentle reader.)
Many were the flavors I tried, from category-leading cinnamon to cloying honey and pancake-worthy maple, from apple and peach to cherry. But in the midst of this extravagant candycopia there was one flavor that was missing: the taste of whiskey.
One could say that all the cinnamon whiskeys are all the same, but just as I’m sure there are some candy connoisseurs who can distinguish between the flavor of Atomic Fireballs and Red Hots, I imagine there are those capable of discerning the difference between Fireball and Fire Eater, or between Tennessee Fire and Kentucky Fire.
I am not among them.
Then I wandered across the fruited plain. Take Jim Beam’s “Red Stag” (please!): Up front is an overpowering, syrupy cherry, which then gives way to vanilla; the finish is vaguely medicinal, which at least suggests there is alcohol of some sort in the mix.
Or, if you’re looking for the taste of industrial-food-complex fruit syrups preserved in generic beverage-grade alcohol, there’s always the Piehole line (a brand that tries to escape the girly-drink label by putting pinup girls on its labels).
There’s nothing much to say about Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey other than that it is consistent—sweet to the nose, sweet on the palate, and sweet on the finish.
Though these various liquors may use whiskey as a base, they are not “flavored whiskeys,” so much as they are “liqueurs” or “cordials.”
I doubt that the 20-somethings currently accounting for the boom in the category are likely to wean themselves off the flavorings: You don’t join the whiskey cognoscenti by drinking cordials, even if you call them “flavored whiskeys.”
Let’s hope that as they age, the Fireball crowd does graduate to drinks less juvenile—either that or they will simply move on to the next over-sugared, chemically-flavored liquor fashion.
Before dismissing today’s flavored whiskey trend altogether, it’s worth noting that there is a worthy American tradition of flavoring and sweetening whiskey.
One of the most popular drinks of the 1880s was “Rock and Rye,” which in its most basic formulation was rock-candy sugar in a bottle of rye whiskey. (One reason for the success of rock and rye was that it was bottled as a medicinal tonic, which allowed the manufacturers to avoid the federal tax on whiskey.)
Nor did Fireball invent the notion of cinnamon whiskey: Jerry Thomas—the eminent 19th-century bartender who penned “How to Mix Drinks, Or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion” in 1862—provided a recipe for a liqueur he called (after the Gaelic word for whiskey) “Usquebaugh.”
One is instructed to doctor 10 gallons of Irish whiskey with ten ounces each of ground cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, plus a pinch of Spanish saffron, and a few ounces of “tincture of rhubarb”—and, oh yes, a pound and a quarter of cinnamon and 8 pounds of “sugar candy.”
Note that, given the proportions, you would still have been able to taste the whiskey.