The cinnamon wars get hotter every day — or night, as the case might be.
If you've been at a holiday party recently, chances are you were offered a shot of cinnamon whiskey. Most likely it was Fireball.
Sazerac's hugely popular cinnamon whiskey was recently named the eighth most popular spirit brand by volume, with more than 700,000 cases sold at U.S. retail stores in the 52 weeks that ended Nov. 30, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm that measures retail trends.
According to IRI's figures, retail sales of Fireball — at supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores, etc. — surged 129 percent during the past year, to $126 million, not including what is sold in bars.
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That will not be a surprise to anyone who has been in line at a drugstore behind a flock of college students clutching purse-size $1 Fireball bottles.
Other major whiskey makers are chasing the Fireball comet: In April, Jack Daniel's began testing Tennessee Fire, which will go national in 2015; in August, Jim Beam brought out Kentucky Fire; in October, Wild Turkey debuted American Honey Sting; and in November, Diageo came out with not one but three Jeremiah Weed flavors: Cinnamon, Spiced and Sarsaparilla.
That's just in the past year. Heaven Hill already had two out: Cinerator, which launched two years ago, and Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve. Early Times, another Brown-Forman brand, had Fire Eater; Wild Turkey also had Spiced, and Beam had Red Stag Spiced.
Flavored whiskeys, once considered a kind of vodka knock-off or a social media fad, have come into their own, with 4.5 million cases sold in 2013. That year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, almost half — 45 percent, or 1.4 million cases — of the growth in whiskey sales came from flavored whiskeys.
David Ozgo, an economist for the spirits council, said his rough estimate is that flavored whiskey sales will top 5.4 million cases for 2014.
"And that's without numbers from the Christmas season," Ozgo said. "The last few months of the year are very important, and flavored whiskey is the sort of thing you see people featuring at holiday parties."
The majority flavor is cinnamon, followed by honey, he said.
"I think the exciting part is that it is all largely driven by the popularity of whiskey, and bourbon in particular in the last couple of years," Ozgo said. "You wouldn't have flavors if you didn't have the increased popularity of bourbon. It's a new way to try an old product for a lot of people."
Josh Hafer, spokesman for Heaven Hill, said connoisseurs constantly ask, "Why would you adulterate whiskey with flavors?"
These whiskeys aren't really for them, he said.
"We make great whiskeys for them," Hafer said. But this is for a different consumer, and few companies can afford to snub them, with sales of more than 5 million cases and climbing.
Even bourbon bars have come to see the fiery light.
Justin Thompson, co-owner of Belle's Cocktail House in Lexington, which focuses on premium whiskeys, really didn't plan to serve Fireball and its kin. But the bar owners kept finding empty Fireball minis in the trash in the bathroom.
"If they are going to drink it, we might as well sell it," he said.
Stephen Rannekliev, an analyst for Rabobank, said there's a good reason you're seeing more and more cinnamon whiskeys: Millennials like them.
"Playing to the sweet tooth of millennials is a necessary component of a successful strategy over the long run," Rannekliev said. "They certainly seem to be more accepting of the fact that they have a sweet tooth. Where older drinkers had one but didn't want to admit it. ... Millennials don't try to hide it."
Once one liquor maker found "that sweet spot," he said, it was inevitable that others would target it, too, and cultivate new customers.
"I can't tell you how many housewives here in New York, when they go out, they do shots of Fireball," he said. "For guys, we need to pretend we're more macho."
Enter Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire.
Brown-Forman president Paul Varga said last month that part of Tennessee Fire's success seems to stem from consumers' perception of its "masculinity" and "premiumness," among other things. It's priced a bit higher than some competitors, and the company hopes that Tennessee Fire can mimic Tennessee Honey, which hit more than a million cases in sales in less than three years.
And the signs are good: After testing first in three states, then five more, Brown-Forman said this month that sales of Tennessee Fire have been 1.35 times better than Tennessee Honey, without cannibalizing sales of the original Old No. 7 Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.
But cinnamon can't save everyone: Southern Comfort, another big Brown-Forman brand, has continued to struggle and lose market share to other flavored liqueurs. And Brown-Forman is dropping the cinnamon and vanilla flavors of Canadian Mist because they haven't moved the sales needle.
The successful cinnamon variants find a way to carve a slightly different niche.
Hafer, who said Cinerator sells about 50,000 cases after a little more than two years on the market, has a strategy: Where Fireball is big as the hot bar shot, Cinerator aims to be the take-home shot.
"We place a premium on retail segment, not on-premise. Our focus is on the package store sales, national accounts such as Costco and Sam's to get it on the shelves, rather than taking an on-premise approach," he said.
The two brands are similarly priced at retail, about $15, but Cinerator often as a hang-tag offering a $10 rebate on an initial purchase, which makes it competitively priced.
"Our goal is to get in your cart," he said. "After the initial taste, we think we can win you over."
Cinnamon whiskey is often enjoyed as a shot, but here are some alternatives ways to drink it for your New Year's Eve party, or any time.
1½ ounce Fireball
1 Angry Orchard Crisp Apple hard cider
Pour Fireball into hard cider; serve over ice.
This recipe is from Malone's Steakhouse
By the fire's shine
11/2 ounce rye whiskey
3/4 ounce MB Roland St. Elmo's Fire
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce almond orgeat
Put all ingredients in a shaker over ice and shake. Strain into an old fashioned glass over fresh ice.
Fireball Jell-O shot cupcakes
For the fireball Jell-O shots:
11⁄3 cup ginger ale
2 envelopes plain gelatin
2⁄3 cup Fireball whiskey
A few drops red food coloring
For the Fireball buttercream:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon Fireball whiskey
11/2 cups powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
Lightly spray mold with non-stick spray, and wipe excess off with a paper towel.
Pour the ginger ale into a medium saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Allow the gelatin to soak for 2 to 3 minutes, then begin to heat on low, stirring constantly until gelatin is fully dissolved (about 5 minutes).
Remove saucepan from heat and stir in the whiskey and a few drops of red food coloring. Pour into molds and chill for several hours, or until set.
For Fireball buttercream icing: In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the speed and add the whiskey, powdered sugar and salt. Increase the speed back to medium-high, and mix until creamy and smooth. Transfer frosting to a piping bag and decorate each shot with a swirl, adding sprinkles if desired. Store shots in the fridge until ready to serve.
Yield: 30 shots.
Buttercream recipe adapted from The Dollop Book of Frosting. From Ericasweettooth.com.