Courtesy Sazerac CompanyOne of the biggest stories in the liquor industry has been the ascension of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, a new favorite of youthful pub-crawlers who consume the stronger stuff by the shot rather than the sip. Sales of Fireball have climbed from 450,000 cases in 2011 to almost 1.9 million in 2013, according to Shaken News Daily. That’s impressive for a brand not known for its palatability—even Fireball lovers say it tastes like chewing a pack of Big Red gum.
Now the competition is ramping up for young tavern patrons who willingly subject themselves to such an experience. The Jack Daniel Distillery, maker of America’s most popular whiskey, is releasing a rival product, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and, of course, Tennessee. At 70 proof, Tennessee Fire has slightly more alcohol than the 66-proof Fireball. It’s also more expensive, but it has the power and authenticity of a brand favored by such celebrity boozers as Keith Richards and the late Frank Sinatra.
The battle for cinnamon whiskey devotees will be fought in barrooms across the country. New Orleans-based Sazerac, which owns Fireball and doesn’t discuss its marketing strategy, relies on an army of brand ambassadors who cultivate bartenders and youthful whiskey enthusiasts, purchasing shots for neophytes who desire a taste. Jack Daniel’s is no stranger to this demographic. It’s riding on the success of Jack Daniel’s Honey, a product that may not appeal to whiskey snobs but resonates with the collegiate set. The Tennessee distillery is also part of the powerful Brown-Forman (BF/B), one of the world’s largest spirits organizations.
Ultimately, the battle may be won or lost online. Fireball has turned digital marketing into something of an art form. Its ambassadors use Twitter (TWTR) to assemble Fireball lovers in local bars for evenings of shots and frivolity. Jack Daniel’s is no slouch in the digital realm, either. Last year the company encouraged fans of Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Whiskey to become members of the Order of Gentlemen. Surely it’s come up with another whimsical campaign to promote Tennessee Fire.
It’s probably a zero-sum game. Most bars have room for only one cinnamon whiskey shot machine. They dispense Fireball now. But if Jack Daniel’s cinnamon effort is successful, bartenders may soon be reconfiguring their machines to serve Tennessee Fire.