Today I continue my trudge through the bottom of the whiskey shelf. But today’s offering isn’t usually found on the bottom shelf, although it probably deserves a permanent place there. Today we discuss the most popular whiskey in over 25% of U.S. states: Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.
America’s favorite whiskey (full disclosure: just writing that hurts) started life as part of a Canadian line of schnapps manufactured by the Seagram company in the 1980s, pretty much just cinnamon and a little sugar added to standard Canadian whiskey. In 1989, the Sazerac company purchased the brand and the formula, re-branding it as “Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Whisky.” There the liquor remained until 2007 when it was again re-branded “Fireball Cinnamon Whisky” and the Sazerac company started an aggressive marketing campaign to try and raise the spirit’s profile.
Since the 2007 re-brand and marketing push, the spirit has seen a meteoric rise to popularity (even being immortalized in a song by Pitbull that I dare you to try and keep out of your head while you’re reading this review.) Some estimates put the sales of Fireball at $150 million per year.
In 2014, the brand suffered a public relations disaster when Finland pulled the spirit from store shelves due to one of the ingredients (a preservative) being too close to the chemical compound used in antifreeze. In response Sazerac changed the formulation of the drink to remove the preservative.
Fireball isn’t quite the same as most spirits on the market. Instead of being the raw result of a distillation and aging process, Fireball is closer to a pre-mixed cocktail.
The product starts as a perfectly good Canadian whiskey. Canadian whiskies typically have a much higher rye content than their American counterparts, leading to a more distinctly spicy flavor and bold taste. That said, the exact grain bill for the base spirit used in Fireball is unknown. Also unknown is whether the base spirit is aged at all — a “whiskey” does not necessarily need to be aged to be labeled as such, and given what happens next I doubt anyone would notice a difference between a fresh and a vintage Fireball.
That Canadian whiskey is then combined with a generous helping of sweeteners and cinnamon and immediately bottled.
Fireball is available in exactly the kind of packaging you’d expect for a drink mainly consumed by inebriated college kids: a plastic bottle with a screw-on top. It’s pretty much par for the course on the bottom shelf, something that is just durable enough to make it home but cheap enough to mass produce.
Honestly there’s nothing to write home about here — it’s not something you would want to show off on your liquor cabinet.
I do appreciate the artwork on the label. Designed by Ross Sutherland, the fire breathing devil on charred and yellow paper evokes the feeling of burning and intense pain that you’re about to experience.
The liquid pours out of the bottle more like a light maple syrup rather than a good whiskey, which seems fitting for the over-sweetened product. Once in the glass, the liquid has a similar color and appearance to other brown liquors, but the overpowering smell of cinnamon coming off the spirit doesn’t let you forget for a moment what’s in your future.
It’s said that the flavor and smell is intended to mimic an “Atomic Fireball” candy. I’m not sure why that’s a good thing, but it does smell like a cinnamon candy in a glass.
The tag line for this whiskey is “Tastes Like Heaven, Burns Like Hell.” I’d say that they got both sides of that tag line wrong.
It could just be that I’m a grouchy old man in a 30 year old’s body, but I can’t stand the taste of this. It’s like drinking straight maple syrup with a little cinnamon thrown in. There’s way too much sugar and sweetness in each sip — I can feel the diabetes starting to creep up on me the more I taste.
There’s probably a reason for the sugar (other than making it appeal to the college kids): to add some weight to the liquid. As it sits, the spirit is only 66 proof (33% ABV), well below the more typical 40% ABV for a whiskey. That lack of alcohol would have to be made up by something else to preserve the same viscosity. Enter, sweeteners.
There might be some traditional whiskey flavors underneath the cinnamon and sugar but I sure as heck can’t detect it. The cinnamon covers everything else up and is the most dominant flavor in the drink.
As for the burning? You’re talking to a man who prefers their spirits neat, at most with a rock or two. If you’re looking for a “burns like hell” spirit then I’d like to introduce you to Still Austin Whiskey Co’s Mother Pepper Whiskey. To me, that’s a spirit that tastes like heaven but burns like hell not because of the additives but because of the process used in its production.
This is probably the closest I’ve ever been to something that literally tastes like cough syrup.
I appreciate that the melting ice cubes add some dilution to the cinnamon flavor, but it’s only a minor relief. Honestly there’s not much you’re going to do that will improve this situation.
One thing I appreciate about the added ice is that it allows you to see just how much sugar is actually in this stuff. If you look closely in the picture above, you can see the heavier sugar saturated spirit interacting with the lighter water from the ice cube and creating a swirling pattern in the fluid. You’ll see the same thing with any spirit and the alcohol content, but usually the swirls tend to move around. Here they just sit on top of each other, the heavy sugary liquid almost completely stationary.
Even with an extra dash of bitters and damn near half an orange as garnish, it doesn’t even make a dent. The only flavors present are still sugar and cinnamon. I might have detected a tiny bit of tartness from the bitters, but the sugar almost instantly cancelled it out.
I mean, at least the drink looks a little bit better? People won’t judge you as much if you’re politely sipping from a sophisticated glass with a bit of orange peel rather than throwing back the shot all at once. So it’s got that going for it, I guess.
It doesn’t taste nearly as bad as I thought it would. I was worried that the cinnamon and the ginger in the ginger beer would be battling like Godzilla and Mothra on my tongue and causing much destruction, but it seems like they almost compliment each other. I can taste both now, which is an improvement.
The problem comes when you realize that you just added even more sugar to an already sugary substance. Now it’s pretty much straight sugar water with some cinnamon flavor, and barely enough alcohol to make the experience enjoyable.
This is in no way shape or form a spirit that I would voluntarily drink. It seems designed solely for the purpose of getting to a state of intoxication with as little fuss as possible — their complete tag line being “It tastes like heaven, burns like hell, what happens next is up to you.” The focus is on the result of the drink and not the drink itself, and probably for good reason.
If you’re looking to get loaded for your night on the town, this might work fine for you. But if you’re looking to enjoy a fine spirit while sitting on your back porch, cigar in one hand and your hound dog at your feet, this is about as far as you can get from something that would be enjoyable.
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky
Classification: Canadian whiskey
Grain bill: ??
Proof: 33% ABV
Price: $18.49 / 750ml ($0.025 / ml)
Overall Rating: 1/5
Drink responsibly. Which, for your taste buds, means preferably not from this bottle.