"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.