“My favorite Scotch is Macallan 12, but I also love Fireball,” claims Joseph Mollica. The 58-year-old keeps a bottle of it in his freezer at all times, treating it like he would amaretto or Sambuca. “And I know I’m not alone.”
Mollica is confident he’s not the only person above 50 that enjoys the spicy, cinnamon-flavored whiskey because, as chairman of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission (NHLC), he spends a good deal of his time in the state’s liquor stores, checking up on what customers are buying. These days he’s seeing a lot of “older people, of which I consider myself one,” he notes, who have begun drinking Fireball. Like him, he says, most of these older folks enjoy it as an aperitif over ice.
“We’re not seeing the shots customer buying Fireball anymore; we’re seeing an older, on-the-rocks customer who drinks it now,” he says.
So how did a quintessential bro-shot brand become something senior citizens have begun drinking from the privacy of their own living rooms?
“Well, historically the brand has always done well with all age ranges,” says Amy Preske, head of public relations for Sazerac (Fireball’s manufacturer). And, of course, she’s mostly right. When Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky was launched back in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t members of Alabama’s Theta Chi fraternity buying handles of it—it was, then, a Canada-only product, part of Seagram’s schnapps line, mostly popular with hockey players and ice fisherman in need of a warming spirit.
Still, when most Americans think of Fireball in its current heyday (let’s say 2011 and on), they picture it as a popular shot in a bar with a lax ID policy. It’s unquestionably college-aged folks who catapulted the brand to $800 million in sales by 2014. In fact, as recently as 2015, the mere incongruity of “grandmas” drinking Fireball led to a viral YouTube video. But the tide has turned: Today, Fireball is being bought by 21.6 percent of adults ages 21 to 34, and 20.3 percent of adults ages 55 to 64.
“Very fiery,” noted one grandma in that viral video. “Soothing, very soothing,” thought another. “I could get to like this,” offered a third grandma.
A friend who works as a marketing director for a higher-end liquor brand (and wished to remain anonymous) has seen Fireball’s new relevance with older clientele first-hand while out promoting her own products. This happened most recently while doing the rounds at liquor stores in New Jersey back in October: “Several owners at, what I would call, ‘nicer’ liquor stores kept telling me that they’ll see older customers purchasing premium brands—good stuff—and then one bottle of Fireball as well,” she says.
Tim Toomey is one of those customers. The 70-year-old retiree from Chicago had his first taste of Fireball at a bar on St. Patrick Day’s five years ago. For most of his life he’s been a beer drinker, with an occasional Irish Mist. “If I drink whiskey, I’ll usually drink a shot of it as I really don’t appreciate the taste,” he tells me. “But my son-in-law had told me this Fireball tastes like Big Red gum, so I said to the bartender, ‘Hey, how ’bout if I have it on the rocks?’” He’s been a fan ever since.
This phenomenon isn’t hard to understand. Fireball is ostensibly whiskey, but at a much lower alcohol by volume (a mere 66 proof, or 33 percent ABV), and it’s sweetened so it’s very easy to drink, particularly over ice. It’s also cheap, around $15 for a 750mL-bottle, and what coupon-cutting septuagenarian doesn’t like a good bargain?
Mollica has an additional theory: “In our market, cinnamon is a really big thing,” he says. Fireball sales for New Hampshire more than doubled from 2013 to 2015, and since 2015 they’ve been up 40 percent. “We put cinnamon in everything. That’s the start, in my mind, of why New England leads the way in this sort of trend.”
It’s that cinnamon flavor that older people apparently so adore that has led to smaller cinnamon whiskeys doing just as well with the age bracket. Mollica tells me that the locally-made Rocky Peak Hard Cinnamon also sells like gangbusters in New Hampshire stores, again mainly on the backs of an older clientele.
“I’m in the stores all the time, talking to people, asking them questions. ‘Hey, what are you doing with that product? How are you using that product?’ I talked to one older gentleman recently, he had an array of great things in his cart,” Mollica says. “Some really nice reds, some good Scotch, some Jack Daniel’s. And Fireball. He told me he was making cinnamon eggnog.”
Ultimately, though, maybe this isn’t a whiskey thing or a cinnamon thing. As my friend the marketing director speculates, maybe it’s young people. Maybe we’re to blame for elderly people suddenly gravitating to Fireball, simply because they wanted a quick (if not misguided) way to foster a better relationship with us, their aloof children and grandchildren.
“I actually think it’s like having your grandma on Facebook, your mom on Facebook,” she says. “You go home for the holidays, and suddenly your mom pulls out a bottle, ‘Oh look, sweetie, I got this Fireball for us all to enjoy. Ya’ want some?’”