Life
by Brandon Wenerd on April 29, 2014

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They say you always remember your first. My first fireball shot was in 2011, when I ponyed up to my favorite watering hole in the East Village, Doc Holidays, and my roommate — a bartender there — poured us a Fireball shot. The Cinnamon-flavored whisky truly burnt like hell, but damn if it wasn’t pleasentFireball was new to New York City at the time, just starting to take America’s young, 20-something drinking population by storm as the most memorable shot craze in at least a decade. Flash forward two years: College students are buying it by the case for parties, liquor stores and college bars can’t keep the 66 proof whisky on the shelves because it’s selling out so fast, and Florida Georgia Line has even incorporated it into their hit ode to boozing, “Round Here.” While no one had heard of it two years ago, I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone under the age of 30 who hasn’t done a Fireball shot in the last month.

Fireball Whisky is the subject of a fantastic business profile by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The shot every 20-something can’t get enough of is making oodles of money for it’s mysterious parent company, New Orleans-based Sazerac. Below are seven things you didn’t know about Fireball and the brand’s bizarre orgins, via the BusinessWeek profile.

Is Fireball a trend — one of those “things of the moment” that will be an afterthought in a couple of years — or is it here to stay?

It’s minting money:

It’s also one of the most successful liquor brands in decades. In 2011, Fireball accounted for a mere $1.9 million in sales in U.S. gas stations, convenience stores, and supermarkets, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Last year, sales leapt to $61 million, passing Jameson Irish whiskey and Patrón tequila. And that number doesn’t include bars, where most people commune with the drink.

Bars are making SERIOUS, SERIOUS cash on Fireball shots:

The liqueur retails for about $16 a bottle, so if a bar sells $5 shots, it’s in the money after three servings. Many places charge more. “We sell our shots for $8,” says Scott Godino Jr., owner of Born & Raised, a bar in Las Vegas. “I know some places on the Strip that are selling them for $16 to $18.”

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The company that owns Fireball is notorious for making knock off, bottom shelf booze:

Sazerac is known in the liquor business as a “cats and dogs company.” It owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., which makes Pappy Van Winkle, the hard-to-find bourbon with a devoted following. But most of Sazerac’s products are more along the lines of Czarina Vodka and a whiskey called Lord Baltimore Blend. “They have a tendency to piggyback or clone,” says Charles Cowdery, author ofBourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. “They’ll find a product that’s successful and basically create a knockoff of it and try to price it $2 less.”

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Fireball is a lot older than you think. Also: It’s CANADIAN.

Fireball was introduced in the mid-1980s in Canada as Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, and it was part of Seagram’s line of flavored schnapps, which were briefly in vogue. This was a family of products with a gaudy mythology. The face of the brand was the fictitious Aloysius Percival McGillicuddy, a “world famous” physician with a handlebar mustache who lived in the 19th century and designed vaguely pharmaceutical beverages such as Methomint and Black Licorice schnapps. He was sometimes referred to perhaps more accurately as “the Shot Doctor.”

Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky caught on in Canada. Hockey players and ice fishermen liked to warm themselves up with a shot when the weather got cold. They still do. “It’s a great fit for the cool climate up here,” says Chris Mabie, a district manager for Diamond Estates Wine & Spirits, which distributes Fireball in the eastern part of the country. He estimates that Fireball accounts for more than a third of all domestic liqueur sales in his region.

It’s become “the anti-Jager” for college students thanks to a little redneck appeal. Also, because guys AND girls both like it:

 “Fireball is pretty much the go-to shot,” says Dion Henderson, a bartender at Chupacabra Cantina in Austin, Tex. “Jäger is dead.” STORY: What to Expect From Starbucks’s New Booze Menu This is worth dwelling on. Jägermeister is an 80-year-old brand that glories in its German heritage; Fireball makes no such claims about its past. Its slogan is comfortably down-market: “Tastes like Heaven, Burns like Hell.” This makes Fireball sound like something for a hard-drinking renegade; it’s just the opposite. The beauty of Fireball from a commercial standpoint is that it’s a whiskey, but it’s easy to take. Men like it well enough. Women seem even more enthralled by Fireball, which is rare for a shots brand. Some bartenders in upscale establishments will tell you they carry Fireball, but they keep it out of sight. They cringe at the thought of being overrun by selfie-taking Fireball drinkers.

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In 2010, after enlisting the help of a social media campaign team, Fireball started naturally catching on amongst college kids in Nashville. The company’s brand ambassadors started buying shots for entire bars:

Fireball was already starting to get traction in Nashville. Pomes needed to figure out what was going on there and replicate it in other parts of the country. Using social networks such as Twitter, he introduced himself to Fireball’s more avid fans in Nashville. One was Caroline Wallace, a bartender at the Buck Wild Saloon. It was a lively place. She and her peers, all young and female, performed their duties in bikini tops and booty shorts. They climbed onto the bar and poured shots directly into the mouths of their customers.

Not long after, Wallace picked Pomes up at a Nashville hotel in her Infiniti and took him out to a number of bars with her friends. At every stop, the charming, well-spoken Pomes produced a credit card and bought Fireball shots for everybody.

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It stuck and it now part of Nashvegas’s drinking culture:

Now you can find people drinking Fireball in almost every bar in Nashville. “It just kind of swept over Nashville like the plague,” says Rose Blankenship, a Fireball enthusiast in the city. “Now it’s just kind of synonymous with our culture. Everybody drinks Fireball.”

The next city it gained traction in was Austin, where it also gained traction from buying entire bars shots:

Pomes applied the lessons he’d learned in Nashville to create the same thirst for Fireball elsewhere. He targeted college towns with thriving bar scenes and sold Fireball as the anti-Jägermeister to young drinkers in search of a new alcohol-drenched fad. It was a call that bartenders heeded, too. After Nashville, Pomes set out to conquer Austin. He faced an obstacle: Local bartenders were loyal consumers of Rumple Minze, a 100-proof peppermint liqueur. So Pomes started traveling frequently to the city and proselytizing to them. “Richard came to Austin quite a few times,” says Paula Spencer, a bartender at TenOak Bourbon House & Lounge. “He wasn’t pushing us to sell something. It was more like: ‘Here’s something I think you’re going to like.’ ”

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The world record for the most Fireball shots ever done at once is 4,750 shots: 

On St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, the Greenhouse Bar in Nashville served prepoured shots in plastic vials to 4,750 revelers in an attempt to set a world record. Josiah Corbin, a local promoter who orchestrated the event with Fireball, says the fete was more nettlesome than he’d expected. “It took us a week to pour all the shots,” he says. “People were really into it. They felt like they were making history. Well, drinking history.”

Now everyone is making cinnamon-flavored Fireball knockoffs:

This might be a good way to describe Sazerac’s overarching strategy for Fireball. The company known for fielding me-too products now faces a wave of Fireball imitations from its more famous rivals. Jägermeister has introduced a cinnamon-and-vanilla-spiced version of the German digestif. Jose Cuervo has created Cinge, a cinnamon-laden tequila. In April, the Jack Daniel Distillery began selling Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, a 70-proof cinnamon variant of the world’s best-selling whiskey. But it’s not clear any of these spicy contenders will inspire the same mania that Fireball has.

Her friend behind the bar at Tootsie’s pours Wallace a shot of Tennessee Fire. She takes a sip and declares that it isn’t bad. But Wallace says Sazerac has nothing to fear. “It will never replace Fireball.”

GO READ THE PIECE IN FULL AT BUSINESS WEEK… 

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Brandon Wenerd

About Brandon Wenerd...

Brandon Wenerd is BroBible's senior editor, guru of @brotips, and director of strategic partnerships. He joined BroBible in the fall of 2009 after graduating from Penn State. When he’s not writing, Brandon enjoys fishing, Phish, Philly sports, Dewey Beach, supporting live music, hot sauce, and beer. E-mail him with post ideas and news tips: brandon@brobible.com.