What’s Behind the Cocktail World’s Obsession with Fireball?

To the surprise of purists, Fireball is beginning to wriggle out of its bro-shot shackles and into unexpected territory: the craft cocktail bar. Drew Lazor on what's behind the highbrow embrace of one of the country's most notorious lowbrow spirits.

Yael Vengroff isn’t exactly sure how she became the cocktail community’s preeminent Fireball evangelist. But she suspects it has something to do with her American flag bikini.

Last year, Vengroff, bar manager at Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, attended Camp Runamok, an invitational bartenders’ bacchanal that gathers drink makers from around the country in a leafy Anawanna-esque setting in rural Kentucky. After a full day of bourbon distillery tours, the campers descended upon a local liquor store to fulfill a long checklist of campfire supplies.

Fond of the candy-sweet shooter from her formative years in Ontario—as well as her time spent behind the bar at Houston’s Fireball-obsessed Grand Prize—Vengroff made an unimpeded beeline for the bottle with the flame-belching repto-humanoid devil on its label. Keen on initiating her unfamiliar peers, Vengroff “went around making everyone drink it,” she says. “I kept hearing, ‘Oh God, that’s terrible. But really wonderful at the same time.’”

At some point, another Runamok camper snapped a photo of Vengroff in her stars-and-bars two-piece, twist-cap of Fireball nestled on her bare stomach. The image, unsurprisingly, earned a good amount of attention via social media, inextricably linking her to the insanely popular, and populist, spirit.

It’s an odd distinction for someone working in a drinking sphere populated by proponents of obscure amari, delicate tinctures and housemade everything. But Vengroff’s not the only cocktail bartender comfortable with macro-booze proselytism. To the surprise of purists, Fireball is beginning to wriggle out of its bro-shot shackles and into unexpected territory, its embrace emblematic of a back-to-basics movement possessing the American craft cocktail bar.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which tastes remarkably similar to the molar-dulling Ferrara jawbreakers of our youth, is produced in Montreal by Louisiana distilling giant Sazerac, also responsible for respected brown-liquor imprints like Buffalo Trace and Pappy Van Winkle. That they do indeed make the stuff is basically all the company will confirm. “We simply do not give information out on Fireball,” says Sazerac spokesperson Amy Preske.

In an age when desperate companies burn through mountains of money attempting to familiarize their target demo with new-hip-cool spirits, Fireball’s growth is enviable. Earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that in 2013, Sazerac pulled in $61 million from retail sales of Fireball alone—up from a scant $1.9 million in 2011.

The firm clearly has its own reasons for being so NSA—they value the mysterious allure, perhaps, or prefer to funnel attention to their fancier lines—but the basic timeline is this: Fireball was born of the Dr. McGillicuddy line of flavored schnapps Sazerac acquired from Seagram in the late 1980s. About seven years ago, it was rebranded to boast its recognizable ketchup-and-mustard look and feel (official slogan: “tastes like heaven, burns like hell”) and has followed a staggering trajectory, commandeering a niche once dominated by high-school hangover specialties like Goldschläger and DeKuyper Hot Damn!

In its infancy, Fireball—insiders say it’s basically Canadian Hunter, an 80-proof bottom-shelf Sazerac product, infused with “natural cinnamon flavor” and tempered to 33 percent ABV—found fast fans at mountain resorts in California and Colorado, who knocked back shots to warm up après-ski. Since then, the company’s old-school, boots-on-the-bar-floor marketing, coupled with a clever social media voice, has produced rabid pockets of fanaticism, starting in southern cities like Nashville, New Orleans and Austin and systematically creeping up the coast.

In an age when desperate companies burn through mountains of money attempting to familiarize their target demo with new-hip-cool spirits, Fireball’s growth is enviable. Earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that in 2013, Sazerac pulled in $61 million from retail sales of Fireball alone—up from a scant $1.9 million in 2011.

“Our customers were asking for it before we started carrying it,” says Mike Mills, beverage director of Pittsburgh’s Butcher and the Rye, home to more than 350 international whiskies. He has no qualms doling out $5 Fireballs with one hand and $250-an-ounce Michter’s Celebration with the other. “We’re all about being able to sip on Pappy, but we’re also about having a nice celebratory shot. And that’s where Fireball has found its place.”

The fandom extends to the other side of the stick as well. “There’s plenty of hidden bottles in cocktail bar reach-ins,” says Nicholas Jarrett of New Orleans’ Cure. “It’s fun, the price point is fair, the proof is right and so on.” Visit NOLA’s booze-and-bowl Fulton Alley, whose bar program was designed by Cure, and watch the $3 shots fly. “Get a shot of Fireball, take a beer back,” says GM Ken McGarrie. “We call them babymakers.”

L.A.’s Honeycut, run by Death & Co. creators Proprietors LLC, has taken to dispensing half-Fireball, half-Jameson shots from a tap system. It was put in place by Proprietors partner Devon Tarby, who was first poured Fireball by—yes—Vengroff. “My reaction was something along the lines of, ‘This goes against everything I believe in as a person in the craft cocktail world, but damn is it tasty,’” she recalls.

Though it’s most frequently doled out in knock-’em-down format, some bartenders have taken to mixing it. Bergerac, in San Francisco, offers the “Fireball Inside Her,” a flaming sake bomb-style drink that sees a shot dropped into a pint of hard cider—a result of Vengroff’s time working there. During the recent Negroni Week fundraiser, Will’s Pub in Orlando served a “Fireballevardier,” swapping the traditional bourbon of a Boulevardier out for you-know-what. Toronto’s The Saint Tavern has married Fireball and Baked Alaska, mixing the booze with Orange Crush, bitters, vanilla ice cream, topping it with bruléed meringue and sticking the thing with a straw.

As is the case with many aspects of the bar world, there is an element of irony in play where Fireball’s concerned. “To me, it’s kitschy,” says McGarrie. “Like, every once in awhile, I want a PBR. And I’m going to have it.”

Novelty notwithstanding, the fact that Fireball has even found a place behind bars of this caliber hints that the industry, as a whole, is realizing that the be-vested approach can beget an air of inaccessibility. “Craft bartenders tend toward the bitter and austere, but we’re shying away from that Prohibition speakeasy, mustache, suspender-wearing thing,” says Vengroff.

Long the realm of hushed conversation, erudite menus and elaborate house rules, cocktail havens are experiencing a shift in attitude, refocusing on the social aspects of drinking and stirring in a sense of humor. And Fireball, it seems, is liquid calibrated to fuel such movement.

“Nobody’s taking themselves too seriously anymore, which is the perfect storm for a product like Fireball to come into play and be accepted,” says Mills.

But there is a contingent of pros wary of Fireball’s integration into their fold, for varying reasons. “It’s not whiskey. It was whiskey,” says Colin Shearn, head bartender of L.A.’s Beelman’s Pub. “There’s been a real backlash against the pretentiousness of the past. I get that, but people are taking it too far the other way, embracing the dumbest fucking things in drinking culture to prove we’re not serious assholes. It’s like Radiohead all of a sudden doing hair metal.”

Splitting the difference between the bickering camps are bartenders who recognize the appeal of Fireball’s flavor profile, but are unsatisfied with the quality—so they’ve decided to make their own. Mike Treffehn, of The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia, produces 66.6 percent ABV “Demon Whiskey” (4 Queens Blended infused with spices, brown sugar and blackstrap rum). Fellow Philly bartender Katie Loeb offers “PyroBlast,” a Canadian whisky base she augments with clove, allspice, pepper and organic cinnamon oil, to drinkers at Headhouse Crab & Oyster Co. And at Fulton Alley, McGarrie soaks Mexican cinnamon in Rebel Reserve and offers it as a slightly pricier alternative to the name brand.

Then there’s Vengroff, who seems to have landed on the most overt way to unite the at-odds elements of cocktail culture at play. Since Harvard & Stone didn’t carry Fireball when she first started, she decided, “tongue in cheek,” to experiment with aging her own in barrels. As bar manager, she now has the authority to order Fireball if she pleases, but says regulars have grown too fond of “Firebarrel”—Pierre Ferrand cognac, Becherovka and cinnamon syrup—to turn back now.

It hasn’t slowed her sermonizing of the original Fireball, bikini-clad or otherwise. “It plays an important role in our community,” she says. “It’s like, hey guys, remember when bartending was fun?”