Food & Drink

Fireball Whiskey: Why This OG Spirit Is Secretly Hot

fireball
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Like most mysteries, this one started in South Boston, at a bar called Stat’s. It is not a craft cocktail bar, or a tiki bar, or a lounge. It is a neighborhood bar and restaurant. The type of place where post-college twenty-somethings with a small to moderate amount of disposable income and no parental responsibilities go to watch sports, do trivia, touch mouths, and drink alcohol. Because it is not a niche bar, Stat’s has always been a fantastic barometer when trying to figure out just what people are drinking these days. Plus, my buddy Andrew owns it, and, like Jonah Hill in Moneyball, he's an analytics guy.  

One day a few months ago, I was asking Andrew about what people in their 20s and early 30s in particular are drinking and he said, well, let's look at the numbers from Saturday night. White Claw hard seltzer was the big winner by an alarming margin. Then standard macro lagers. Then we looked at shots. He started rattling numbers off. 47 Jameson shots, and another 43 of Cuervo, and so on. But, I asked, how many of Fireball? I recalled, the last time I'd frequented any real bars with young people, before I became old and started exclusively wearing shawls and soft pants and drinking sherry out of copitas while reading transcripts of NPR podcasts, Fireball was, to use a youthful phrase, the bee's knees

Anyway, Andrew looked at the numbers. Zero, he said. On a Saturday night, we sold zero shots of Fireball. Intrigued, he kept digging and looking back through the years. What he found was pretty damn remarkable:  

In 2013, Stats sold 45,000 shots of Fireball, and went through 38 bottles a week. But by 2019, they'd only sold 2,1000 shots, or two bottles a week. "They're just not ordering it anymore," Andrew said. 

This fascinated me. So I started calling folks across the country with similar style bars and kept hearing the same thing. Mark Devito is co-owner of Dr. Teeth in San Francisco, and was a partner in Soda Popinski, another SF bar aimed at the post-college youth demo, and the first in the city to offer Fireball on tap when it opened in 2012. His bars happily sold "case after case" of Fireball during Obama's second term years and didn't think twice about it. "Look," he said laughing, "we've got a Claw-arita on the menu right now, which is a giant margarita with four White Claw Limes shoved in it, so there's no snobbery here. If the people want it, I'm happy to provide." But, he says, they don't even order Fireball by the case anymore. "We keep a bottle in the fridge, and when it gets half full, I might get another one. But it's just not a priority." 

I heard the same in Chicago. And New York. And New Orleans. And I was ready to open up my Fireball-crimson iBook and write a story about how the cinnamon whiskey had done its Icarus imitation but now its Big Red flavored wax wings had melted off and it was trapped in liquor Hades in perpetuity. I was ready, to use another youthful phrase, to go HAM. But then I went on the information superhighway, and I learned something possibly even more remarkable: In 2013, Fireball sold 1.87 million cases in America and sales have been steadily rising since. By 2018 (the last year I could find statistics for), it was 5.19 million.

This continuous rise in Fireball's national liquor sales volume in the face of declining consumption among millennials is a mystery I’m eager to solve. What does Fireball's meteoric rise and alleged pivot say about the drinking habits of Americans? What sort of glorious lessons could we the drinking public learn once we discover just what the hell is going on with Fireball?

"Bottles on me, as long as someone's drinking." - Drake 

Like Drake, Fireball was born in the mid-80s in Canada, but didn't get big until it embraced its American side. And like Drake, its popularity really took off once it changed its name. Founded as Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, it was rebranded as Fireball in 2007. Purchased by Louisiana-based Sazerac, the liquor first came into the national consciousness around 2011, as industry folks began to marvel that a brand with no traditionally huge marketing campaign was "organically" taking off, one of the first to become popular through social media, and, as a Sazerac spokesman told the Huffington Post in 2014, by "pushing engagement with people in the industry, particularly bartenders." 

The speculation about what caused it to blow up was somewhat all over the map. Fireball was a cool name. It evoked the best of all of Super Mario power-up personas, but tasted like Atomic Fireball candy. Its branding as whiskey and not schnapps gave insecure post-college age males cover fire to rationalize shooting it. Your breath smelled like you were chewing Big Red. It could be consumed ironically, or earnestly, depending upon where in the hipster Venn diagram you placed yourself. But whatever the reason, it was certainly being consumed. According to IRI research, its sales jumped from $1.9 million in 2011 to $131 million in 2014, and another $850 million through bars/restaurants. Craft cocktail bars were making their own handcrafted versions of Fireball. It was, to keep the youthful phrases flowing, lit. 

But then it wasn't. Chris Monahan, who's been in liquor sales for 16 years, linked it to "a lifestyle change" amongst the post-college kids. "They're paying a lot more attention to health and wellness, calories, all those sorts of things," he said, pointing to the rise of White Claw and lower ABV beers. "And they're not afraid to spend money. Look at Casamigos and what some of these other tequilas have been able to do. It's more about the quality than quantity now." 

When I talked to Jeffrey Morgenthaler, owner of Clyde Common and Pepe Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, he made another point I hadn't thought of. While the rise and ubiquity of the craft cocktail movement, and the explosion of micro-distilleries and everything becoming so damn precious has universally become a great thing, there is an unintended consequence. "There's basically been a low-level shaming campaign going on for years against alcohols deemed unworthy in our cocktail ivory tower," said Morgenthaler. "If someone came in and asked for Fireball, I might say, 'No, sorry, we only serve whiskey-flavored whiskeys here.' Now, I think I'm doing them a favor by turning them onto something better, but really I'm just being a dick, and I'd imagine if you just want some cinnamon whiskey without dealing with us and our shitty attitudes, you just start drinking it at home."   

Morgenthaler's point set off one of those lightbulb emojis above my head. If they weren't consuming it by the gallons at the bars anymore, but the sales numbers were still increasing, it had to be off-premise sales, right? I was asking bartenders, but what I really needed to be doing was talking to liquor store owners. And so I called Mike O'Connell. 

O'Connell is the owner of three wine and spirit shops in the Greater Boston area (he's also a crazy talented chef). I asked him about Fireball and he told me that, while sales have been pretty steady, he's noticed two important differences. For one, the clientele purchasing Fireball has changed. "It used to be a lot younger, but now it's mainly guys in their thirties to sixties. We sell a ton on Fridays from 9am to noon. Landscapers, cooks, plumbers, guys about to go golfing, guys working in golf course bag rooms."  

And secondly, the way they purchase Fireball has changed. O'Connell used to sell a lot more 1.75 and 750ml liter bottles. But now "it's basically all nips [50mL mini bottles]. We sell 100 to 1 in terms of nips to bottles." There is ritual to it, he explained. "Guys come in all the time and buy a sleeve of ten nips for $10. Or 50 nips in a bucket. It's all either working folks, or people going to tailgate or golf. It's the outdoor event crowd, now."  

Something about this reminded me of an old 2007 Conde Nast Portfolio cover story journalist Joe Keohane wrote about the advertising strategy for Carl's Jr and Hardee's. At the time, they were aiming for the "young, hungry guys" demo, blue collar men who were nonplussed with the post Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me shift towards health that had struck the quick service industry. In a similar way, just as millennials all appear too health-minded to drink anything other than White Claw and vodka sodas, the current Fireball demo seems to be midlife men.

And it also got me wondering -- is this just what happens when you reach the summit of saturation and popularity in America? Is alcohol actually like pop music? First you hear Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" at an underground show in Seattle and see a Pitchfork review, and then you hear it on a couple of radio stations and you're like, "cool" and then suddenly Obama puts it on his playlist and your mom starts talking about "popping tags" and pretty soon you're walking down the cereal aisle at your supermarket looking for Christmas Crunch and you realize you're listening to a Thrift Shop instrumental and my god remember when you used to actually admit to people you liked that song?!? 

This, friends, might just be Fireball's trajectory. It started as the darling of college towns and bars popular with 20-somethings, then became the ubiquitous outdoor alcohol at tailgates and golfing events, and among "jet ski enthusiasts," as Morgenthaler puts it. And now, according to a Punch story from last year, 20% of the customer base purchasing Fireball are over 55. Chris Monahan put it another way: "Maybe this is just what it takes to stay on top. Once you become wildly popular, you're no longer the cool kid, and so you've got to shift your aim. Or just let it play out. Either way, why would they care? They're still making money."  

I asked O'Connell if he'd seen anything exploding in the ways that Fireball did a few years ago, anything that might be worth watching. He thought for a moment. "You know, it's incredibly early, but there's something called Skrewball Whiskey. I think it came onto the market a month ago, but over Christmas, I got a ten case drop of it, and I couldn't keep it in the store. We sold out in a weekend." 

I ask him what it is. To me, Skrewball sounded like a premade screwdriver concoction or something. "Oh no," he said. "It's a peanut butter flavored whiskey. Sub out the cinnamon for peanut butter, and essentially it's Fireball."

On a sunny late January Wednesday, I took off my shawl and soft pants, neatly stacked up my latest dog-eared volume of Terry Gross interviews, put on some black jeans and a temporary tattoo that somehow referenced Climate Change and the HBO show Euphoria, and went to drink amongst the youths. 

My bar of choice was Devito's Dr. Teeth in San Francisco's Mission District. Dr. Teeth has been popular with 20-somethings for many years. When I walked in, it was rife with folks who had only recently been granted full car-renting status. Using espionage techniques I learned reading The Hardy Boys Casefiles series, I cased the joint. There was no Fireball to be seen. 

I turned to the group of guys and girls next to me at the bar. "Excuse me." 

They stopped their conversation and turned. Two were holding White Claws, and one had Bud Light. "Yes," a young man said to me politely, as he was raised to respect his elders. 

"Would you all like to do a shot of Fireball?" 

They looked at me and the chasm made of discomfort and awkwardness seemed impenetrable. They looked around at each other, and then up at the sky, perhaps maybe to call upon Momus, the Greek God of Mockery, to help them see this situation through. Finally, the young man spoke again. 

"No thanks, man," he said, and that was that.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End is out now from Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.