Fireball Whisky: Selling a Brand, Shot by Shot

How a secretive company hired an unknown actor to get people to drink a repackaged schnapps
A three-decade-old Canadian liqueur that tastes like liquefied cinnamon chewing gum is replacing Jägermeister as the challenge shot of choice Photograph by David Brandon Geeting for Bloomberg Businessweek

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky is known in the spirits industry as a challenge shot. It’s an orange beverage that comes in a clear bottle with a prancing demon on the label. It tastes like a syrupy incarnation of Wrigley’s Big Red gum. It’s sweet, with a spicy burn. You can try a few Fireball shots on a dare without getting plastered. It’s only 66 proof, less than most whiskeys. And if you have too many, at least you won’t smell like a drunk. Fireball keeps your breath cinnamon fresh.

All of this may sound unappealing if you’re the kind of person who finds comfort in a snifter of peaty single malt Scotch. But it helps explain why Fireball has become synonymous with fun for young hedonists throughout the U.S. It may be the first alcoholic beverage to have a larger presence in the virtual world than it does in taprooms and liquor stores. Fireball lovers post pictures of their whiskey-soaked exploits on Instagram. They celebrate it on Twitter and use Foursquare to monitor the whereabouts of Fireball’s “brand ambassadors,” who go from bar to bar treating lucky patrons to free shots.

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.

Now Fireball is within striking distance of Jägermeister, perhaps the most challenging of shots because of its medicinal taste. Jägermeister generated $81 million in sales last year, but it isn’t growing nearly as fast as its cinnamon-infused rival. “Fireball is pretty much the go-to shot,” says Dion Henderson, a bartender at Chupacabra Cantina in Austin, Tex. “Jäger is dead.”

April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Move over, Jägermeister: the new shot of choice is Fireball Whisky, a cinnamon-flavored spirit that tastes exactly like an Atomic Fireball candy. Fireball has gone from obscure to inescapable in just a couple of years: sales have quadrupled since 2011. What’s responsible for the product’s underdog success? Bloomberg asked three seasoned New York City bartenders to help explain the Fireball phenomenon.

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. Still, these bartenders stock it. They’d be foolish not to. 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.”

Many people like Godino happily discuss their success with Fireball. But Sazerac, the New Orleans-based beverage maker that owns Fireball, declines to speak about it. “We prefer to remain mysterious,” says spokeswoman Amy Preske, stating what could be Sazerac’s corporate motto. It’s a secretive operation owned by the city’s Goldring family, whose members would rather be known for their philanthropy than their impressive work in the shots category.

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 of Bourbon, 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.”

Sazerac doesn’t do much in the way of traditional advertising either. It depended on a 25-year-old actor-turned-Internet-marketer to spread the word about Fireball. His name is Richard Pomes, and for a few years his job was basically to wander the country buying people shots. Pomes declined to be interviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek. So did Zehnder Communications, the New Orleans advertising agency that works closely with Sazerac and hired him to be Fireball’s first national brand ambassador. Pomes resigned from his ambassadorship in August 2012 and started RapJab, a marketing firm in New Orleans. But much of what Pomes accomplished can be gleaned from Fireball’s websites, his own LinkedIn page, and interviews with bartenders and Fireball devotees whom he befriended in his travels. “Every liquor distributor has a bunch of reps that are pushing various new products, particularly shooters, at any given time,” says Nick Thomas, marketing director for Republic New Orleans, a nightclub in the city. “The difference is, Fireball did a really good job of focusing on sampling. They just put it in a ton of mouths very quickly.”
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.

There wasn’t much demand back then for Fireball in the U.S. As the flavored schnapps fad began to wane, Seagram sold the rights to the Dr. McGillicuddy portfolio to Sazerac in 1989 for an undisclosed sum. Still, Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball didn’t go anywhere until 2007 when Sazerac wisely freed Fireball from its association with the Shot Doctor and turned it into a free-standing product, one that would be more alluring to MTV-nurtured thrillseekers. And most important, Zehnder Communications enlisted Pomes to craft a social media campaign to promote the revitalized brand in 2010.

Pomes was a self-taught pitchman. He studied performing arts at the University of New Orleans. He joined the NOLA Project, a local theater troupe where he acted in Shakespearean plays and began promoting its events on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. He applied the same methods to Fireball. “Richard was really into the idea that we join social media to connect with people, not corporations,” says A.J. Allegra, artistic director for the NOLA Project. “He became the spokesman and the face of Fireball. He promoted himself as a party animal, which is kind of what you have to do to promote a cinnamon-flavored whiskey.”

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.

Wallace enjoyed Fireball so much herself that she followed the whiskey’s Twitter feed, which Pomes maintained. She pledged allegiance, both on her own behalf and that of a friend. “We’re the Fireball queens,” Wallace tweeted. “Come visit us.” She had done this kind of thing before on Twitter with other liquor companies; there was never any answer. Pomes responded immediately. “Well, I want to come up there,” he wrote her in a direct message.

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.

It was one of Pomes’s many pilgrimages to Nashville. He ingratiated himself with the city’s bartenders and people whom he identified as Fireball “superfans.” Pomes didn’t pay them money to evangelize on the brand’s behalf. He rewarded them with Fireball merchandise, everything from Fireball lip balm to beer openers. Wallace got a Fireball bikini. She felt honored. She was happier still when Pomes featured her on Fireball’s website as its first bartender of the month. “I still put that on my résumé,” Wallace says. “It’s something I’m very proud of.”

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.”

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.’ ”

The soft sell worked. “We just switched from peppermint to cinnamon,” says Henderson, the Chupacabra Cantina bartender. ”With Rumple Minze, you think you could drink it and not smell like booze. But it’s stronger than anything.”

Henderson went bar hopping with Pomes and saw him in action. “He’d say, ‘Dion, count the heads,’ ” Henderson recalls. “So I’d count everybody and tell the bartender, ‘Hey, we need 25 shots of Fireball.’ ” Occasionally, patrons would decline their free dose, saying they didn’t like whiskey. Pomes would assure them Fireball was different. According to Henderson, these mass initiations made an impression on many of Austin’s barflies: “Their first experience with Fireball would be the entire bar taking a shot and everybody yelling, ‘Whoo-hoo!’ ”

Soon, Pomes was spending much of his time flying around the country in search of new customers. “This is how it usually works,” he wrote on the Fireball website in 2011 before a trip to Dallas. “I fly into a city with a list of all the bars that have Fireball. Then I barhop. I barhop till I canst barhop no more. And as I barrel through your fair city I create a wave of excitement that involves delicious cinnamon whisky. My goal is to amass as many people as I can on my barhopping adventure and to ultimately buy as many people shots as humanly possible.”

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Pomes also enlisted demi-celebrities who had large followings online. He struck up a relationship with Josh Harris, a star of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. Harris was happy to promote Fireball on the Internet. “Who is a fan of the tasty new liquor taking over the world called FIREBALL?” Harris asked his Facebook friends. “Been drinking it for years.” Nikki Benz, an adult entertainer whose filmography includes Housewives Hunting Housewives, was another evangelist. “I loved it so much that I just started tweeting about it,” she says. “Fireball took notice, and they started sending me Fireball merchandise. I have a Fireball machine at home, where you put a bottle in it and it chills it? They did that for my birthday. I thought it was so sweet.” Benz also received a Fireball bikini.

Pomes and his growing team of ambassadors encouraged bars to have massive Fireball drinking contests. “We ended up pouring, like, 90 shots at once,” says Curtis Lanton, manager of Third & Long, a now-shuttered bar in New York. “We sent pictures to Fireball, and they posted them on their websites and on Twitter and Facebook. Our customers got a big kick out of that.”

Photograph by Stephanie Keith/Polaris

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.”

Toward the end of the summer of 2012, Pomes tendered his resignation. “I think he’d just had enough of trying to live up to this image he’d created for himself,” says the NOLA Project’s Allegra. “He was turning 27. This was a job for a 21-year-old.” Pomes was replaced by one of his younger protégés, Bob Bowling, an ambassador who had proven himself in Fort Collins, Colo. By all accounts, Bowling is as attentive to bartenders as his former boss. He frequently updates his Twitter feed. And Bowling employs some effective, if familiar, tricks to please Fireball drinkers. Godino, the bar owner in Las Vegas, can’t say enough about the young female emissaries known as the Fireball Whisky Girls who visit his establishment and dispense samples. He says they do a better job than their short-skirted counterparts from Smirnoff, Crown Royal, and Coors Light. “They stay longer,” Godino says. “They’re more interactive. They give a little more out. And they come here more often.”

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.

Recently, Wallace was enjoying happy hour at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a Nashville landmark. She’s no longer climbing the bar at the Buck Wild Saloon. The place went out of business. Instead, she’s tending bar at the Soulshine Pizza Factory and studying to be a dental assistant.

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.”