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What's Behind Fireball's Appeal? An Eater Investigation

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[Photos: Patricia Chang]

It's the cinnamon-flavored secret that college kids and bartenders alike are drinking behind closed doors, and there's no end in sight to the distinctly down-market trend. Yes, you guessed it: we're talking about Fireball. To better understand the Fireball phenomenon (and to do something goofy to celebrate the close of Cocktail Week 2013), Eater editors Allie Pape and Rose Garrett enlisted the help of Russell Davis and his Bergerac team, who sought to demystify the allure of the drink and competed to create a great Fireball cocktail along the way. The judges? A group of regular everyday Fireball-drinking dudes.

First off, we sat down with Davis to get some context.

So, what's the appeal of Fireball? It's hugely popular. It's almost a dirty little secret. People really do drink the hell out of this stuff. It's using a base spirit, whiskey, that's really coming into its own right now, and there are more female drinkers drinking brown spirits now than ever. So you combine that with some sugar and cinnamon, and where are you going to go wrong? It feels like one of those college drinks, but at the same time you taste it and you want to hate it, but then it's good. It makes me feel like I'm younger again.

How would you describe the demographic of the Fireball drinker? The main demographic of people who are pushing numbers across the country is the college bars. The sports bars, the places where the 22- to the 26-year-olds go to drink heavily. Fireball is not one of those things that you're sipping. Someone is taking shots of it.

[Fireball shots happen.] AP: That actually goes down easy. RG: It tastes like Big Red.

Could you use Fireball in a really highbrow cocktail? Or should you even try? You can do anything with anything. If these days celebrity chefs are showing people the meals they can create with ingredients from dollar stores, than why don't we take some of these things that are a little bit more fun and do the best we can with them? [Bar manager] Yael [Vengroff] is well-known within the mixology community for drinking Fireball. And whereas some bartenders might take a shot in secret or make fun of it, Yael has stood by it.

Yael Vengroff: I am the Fireball devil. I'm getting him tattooed on me somewhere.

Davis: So I called Yael and told her I wanted to put a drop shot on the menu. And she said 'We have to do Fireball dropped in cider.' And so she gave it a clever name, 'Fireball Inside Her.' When people come in in groups, we'll line them up domino-style and light them on fire.

Do you see these shots as cyclical, like Jäger has its moment and then Fireball has its moment? Or does it just get added to the pantheon? At a point it just gets added to a bigger group of things that will always be popular. There's always going to be Jäger drinkers. But there's definitely a cycle of what's popular. I have a feeling it's going to be something like Becherovka next. It's an herbal liqueur that comes out of the Czech Republic. I would love to see people drinking Green Chartreuse. I'm taking a bottle of Green Chartreuse and placed it in the freezer, and when it comes out, the taste is more palatable. With a lot of these liquors and amaros, that's a lot of flavor. When you chill them down you're making things more approachable.

Have amari sort of reached their natural peak? I mean, Jägermeister is an amaro, technically. Becherovka is an amaro, technically. But, you know, it might have played out. I think people got out of that as far as the shooting aspect. Everybody's run up and down, from the bitters, you know, you'd see guys doing shots of Angostura bitters. People would do an "Angostura bomb," just dropping it in Red Bull and chugging it. Just for fun.

Who? Me. By 'people,' I mean me.

[Fireball Inside Her drop shots happen.] RG: Oh Jesus. AP: Yeuagh. RG: It's actually pretty refreshing. AP: It's that classic apple-cinnamon combination.

Next, we turned to Davis' Bergerac bartenders for their own Fireball intel.

When is the first time you had Fireball?

Eric Rickey: Probably just on the cocktail scene. It was kind of a funny thing we would all do behind the bar, to each other. Someone would set up a bunch of shots and call you over and be like: 'Fireball shots.' Just like icing someone. And I'm down. I don't hate it. It goes down easy. It's not like a fine whiskey, but it wakes up your palate. It makes your mouth alive.

Ax Velez: It's huge in the bartending community. It's more of a relaxing shot to enjoy a night out with your friends. It's taking off the pretentiousness of mixology. If I give a Fireball to someone, and the next guy I give a Crochet Rouge [one of Bergerac's specialty cocktails, a take on a Red Hook], I've done my job. Especially if they leave together! Next thing, they're coming in with a baby.

Our Fireball focus group arrives, most from esteemed local sports publication Bleacher Report, consisting of Dylan MacNamara, Martin McReynolds, Bennett Spector and Jeff Kneis. All are regular drinkers of Fireball, and were willing to take a walk on the wild side with Fireball cocktails; one responded to the invitation by declaring, "Gnarnia!" A spirited conversation ensued; attribution has been removed to protect the guilty.

So, what's the appeal of Fireball?

- It doesn't make you feel like throwing up after six shots. You can drink a lot of Fireball and still feel great.
- Because it's a lower alcohol content.
- I've never seen anything come out of nowhere like it did. It went from zero knowledge about it, to having it and hearing everyone else talking about it, within like a week or two. Like almost immediately.
- Everyone likes it! It's Fernet, except the opposite. Because everyone hates Fernet.
- Everyone likes it. You'll have guys who lie, like 'Oh, it's too sweet.' You're lying, dude!
- When you're drunk already and you take a Fireball shot, it doesn't give you that regurgitation.
- Have you ever puked Fireball? It burns on the way up, too.
- It's something that even people who don't like shots will agree to take. So if you're in a big group, no one's gonna say no to Fireball.
- Especially in a group setting. We're gonna rip shots.
- It's cheap, too.
- And it's not gonna floor you. You can take four Fireball shots and be fine. If you take four tequila shots?
- You're gonna be fucked up.
- To say the least.

What was the shot of the moment before Fireball came along?

- I'd buy whiskey.
- No, everyone ordered Fernet.
- Mind-Erasers.
- Mindies!
- What are Mindies?
- Let's do a round.
- Mind Erasers are vodka and Kahlua, topped off with soda.
- They're similar to Fireball in that they go down really easily.
- Let's do a Fireball Mindie.
- Fire Mindies?
- Cinnamindies?
- I'd say the shot of the moment was tequila. Two years ago we would've ripped tequila.

[Eric Rickey's cocktail is a Smoke and Fire Swizzle, composed of agave nectar, house-made ginger syrup, lemon juice, Fireball, Don Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, swizzled and topped with angostura.]

- I dunno. It's very tangy.
- It tastes sort of like a margarita.
- I think the Fireball is kind of lost in this. I wouldn't say it's a Fireball cocktail. It's a mezcal cocktail with a Fireball back.
- It tastes like smoky mezcal.

[Yael Vengroff's cocktail arrives. It's a Baby's Last Bourbon, with Fireball, lemon, cognac, and orgeat.]

- Milky.
- Kinda tastes like a Fireball White Russian.
- Yeah. Could be a good morning drink, potentially. A darty drink.
- That's a darty drink! [Ed. note: Daytime party.]
- This is actually delicious.
- It's like a lemon smoothie with a hint of cinnamon.
- It's almost like it could be made into an ice cream.
- That a great idea. Don't give away our idea.
- I think this should be a shot, though. Honestly.
- It might also be popular in the holiday season.

[Ax Velez's cocktail is a take on a Lynchburg Lemonade, with Fireball, sudachi juice, lime, phosphate, grenadine, and a float of dry curaçao.]

- I can already tell this is the one.
- That's the one.
- There it is.
- I really like the carbonation.
- It's a good cocktail.
- It's definitely another darty drink.
- It's just purely refreshing.
- You could work out and drink this. It's replacing electrolytes.
- I want to taste more Fireball though.

The Lynchburg Lemonade wins our Fireball cocktail taste-off, by unanimous vote.

How do you feel about the idea of Fireball cocktails?

- Part of me thinks it sort of defeats the purpose a little bit. Fireball to me is about energy and stepping it up, and you can't really do that with a cocktail.
- I think we're more just Fireball shot dudes.
- The whole point is that you can drink it as it is. You don't need to dress it up.
- Can we have four Fireball shots, please?

Allie Pape and Rose Garrett contributed reporting/drinking for this story.

· All Cocktail Week 2013 posts [~ ESF ~]


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