My first experience with Fireball whiskey was at Manhattan on Capitol Hill with my 60-years-young father. He’s a bachelor, a sports radio personality, and a type of guy who’s not afraid to order a Ketel One kamikaze up, which I quickly remind him is what 21-year-old girls drink before they know what’s good for them.
We bellied up to the bar and my dad immediately asks the bartender’s name and starts interviewing him, a habit developed over 40 years in the media, a habit that bartenders and servers find either annoying or endearing depending on how busy the night, a habit that I’m sure someday will force me to say, “I’m turning into my father.”
Roman, the bartender, happened to not be so busy this night and we got to chatting about the Fireball-erator behind him on the bar. Yes, you’ve probably seen the Jagermeister machine, but have you seen the Fireball one? It chills the cinnamon-flavored whiskey, making it an easy shooter. My dad ordered us a round. Immediately, I can taste the draw, the sweet smooth spice and then the heat that hits the back of your throat. The face-warming feeling wakes you up. It hits those receptors that say, “Let’s have another!” It's almost too easy to drink; you can feel the fiery hangover creeping up, ready to greet you in the morning.
A shot of Fireball is to many industry types finishing up their nights what Fernet Branca was a few years back. Though hopefully that doesn't mean we will be seeing it in a bunch of cocktails a year from now.
The rumor behind the creation of the booze is vague, according to the Fireball website, it all began one long-cold winter somewhere in Canada in the mid '80s having something to do with frostbite, but there it remains a mystery for no historical records are available. It’s marketed by the Sazerac Company originally of New Orleans, the establishment behind many brands like Buffalo Trace bourbon, Firefly sweet tea vodka, and a dubiously intriguing Jelly Belly array of flavored liqueurs called Dr. McGillicuddy’s (there’s a chilling machine for those, too.)
Fireball has slowly made its way into the mainstream since its arrival to the states in 2007, in part due to its 33-percent alcohol content without that acquired taste that often comes with it. Another Manhattan barkeep, going by the mysterious name of Sunk, told me that Fireball doesn’t seem to have a particular clientele; it’s more of a mood or attitude, “It’s not for the grumpy wine-drinking crowd.”
Hood River Distillers out of Oregon jumped on the cinnamon train in 2012 with its version, SinFire, which caused some controversy and a lawsuit between the companies, Sazerac claimed that the bottle and color scheme were too similar. Justin Martinsen, owner of Speckled and Drake, says he steers Fireball seekers toward the SinFire; it's arguably a little less saccharine and still packs that spicy finish.
People who know Fireball love it or hate it. There is no in between. Crazy-drinking-party stories often start with the words: We did some shots of Fireball and then (fill in the blank). Chef Ethan Stowell, himself a fan of an end-of-night slug of Fireball, likes to tell the tale of a particular night that began with the dispensing of mini-bottles and ended with two of his employees, who shall remain anonymous, making out against a car with ski goggles on. The cinnamon quaff has a following with the restaurant industry crowd, not necessarily for the taste, but for the fun of it. It’s not for everyone, but my dad sure did enjoy it…a few more rounds later, we were best buds with Roman and in desperate need of a Dick’s burger.
Though I doubt you’ll have a hard time finding it, see what all the burn is about at one of these Fireball loving establishments:
This Capitol Hill bar has Fireball on chilling machine; try it straight up or ask that bartender Sunk for a drink called “Applesauce.”
In an article from The Stranger about regrets for 2012, owner Linda Derschang claimed that one of hers was an “extra large shot of Fireball” at a concert. She told them: “I know all the kids drink it, but I'm no kid.” Try it like she did at one of her joints.
The all-night industry happy hour on Tuesdays includes shots of the cinnamon whiskey for $4. If you’ve got that class-12 liquor permit or food handler's card you’re in luck.
At the bar where drinking the sweet stuff might be a requirement to fit in, try the “Hellicorn” a mix of Fireball and ginger ale with lime and bitters for nine bucks. What were we saying about Fireball not being a cocktail ingredient?