Food & Drink

How a generation became drenched in hot cinnamon insanity

Fire it up

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The trends sweeping our drinking culture aren't limited to craft distilling and high-end cocktails. We have also seen an explosion of flavored whiskeys, infused with everything from honey to maple syrup. (Flapjacks, anyone?) But no beverage has transformed the way people drink out of shot glasses like the cinnamon-flavored shooter known as Fireball.

The 66-proof product has been around since the 1980s, and was originally marketed under the unlikely name "Dr. McGillicuddy's Fireball Whisky." Just eight years ago the drink was rebranded as Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, and has become a smash hit. From 2011 to 2013, sales skyrocketed from less than $2 million to $61 million. It's become one of the top 10 most popular liquors, and was recently poised to displace bro-friendly Jagermeister in popularity.

The taste brings back childhood memories of tilting back a box of candy containing those cinnamon-flavored red pills known as Red Hots, letting them get all gooey under your tongue, and swallowing some very spicy saliva. (Except with Fireball you end up on the floor instead of finishing your paper route.) In fact, that memorable flavor activates more than childhood recollections of candy. It also makes you wonder if it could clean brass, unstick Super Glue, and penetrate rusty bolts. It sure peels the paint off your gullet.

Certainly, that macho quality plays into the liquor's wild popularity. A frat brother might react coolly to something from Dr. McGillicuddy's medicine cabinet, but call it Fireball, give it a label that looks as if it's almost singed off, and the whole fraternity is doing shots of it. Any liquor that makes a daring appeal for that exuberant person, one who drinks almost athletically, guarantees good sales.

That said, the appeal of Fireball cuts across gender lines. Alcohol has a natural tendency to burn more tender throats, and the slap of spice helps it go down more easily. It shares a commonality with other, strongly flavored shooters: the licorice bite of Jager, or perhaps most closely the burst of cinnamon in Goldschlager. Strong flavors seem to make that shot just a little more like popping a piece of candy.

And things could be worse. It could taste like pumpkin spice.

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