Spirits

The Quest for Artisan-Made Cinnamon Whiskey

After the success of Fireball, craft whiskey brands enter the fiery fray

Whiskey lined up in a row
Photo courtesy of Quincy Street Distillery.

Even the most casual observer of the alcohol industry couldn’t help noticing the explosion of Fireball onto the scene several years back. The Canadian cinnamon-flavored whisky rose from obscurity to ubiquity, seemingly overnight—the sudden shot of choice at the sports bar, handle of choice at the frat party, nip of choice at the liquor store.

In 2015 the MSS US Bartender Influencer Study surveyed 15,000 bartenders nationwide and found Fireball to be the most recommended spirit at the bar—across all categories. While Fireball’s parent company, Sazerac, does not release sales figures, Impact Data Report estimated Fireball sales at 4.5 million cases in 2016.

Not to be left behind, many major American whiskey brands followed suit, including Jack Daniel’s (with its Tennessee Fire), Jim Beam (Kentucky Fire), and Heaven Hill (Cinerator). But what about smaller producers? Have any attempted a craft cinnamon whiskey?

SevenFifty Daily found a couple of craft players that have launched cinnamon whiskeys, attempting to break into a market that so far has been dominated by major players and finding mixed results along the way.

Marketing on Local Angle and Lower Sugar

“In the craft spirits world, you’re always looking for some kind of niche,” says Gene Marra, the owner and distiller at Cooperstown Distillery in New York. “Something you can pluck from the competition and make into an opportunity.” Because his distillery is located in the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, many of the brand’s labels allude to the baseball connection, an “opportunity” that also led to Spitball Cinnamon Whiskey, launched in 2016.

To Marra, his opening into the market was a cinnamon whiskey with significantly less sugar. “We absolutely went after the Fireball market,” he says. “But we found that most people do eventually shy away because it’s so sweet—even younger people are starting to shy away.”

Marra spent over a year in the process of developing his Spitball, beginning to end: using his own background as a distiller and a former chef to determine the broad profile he was after, meeting with a flavor specialist team to map out their aims, then dedicating a week in the laboratory to tweaking the formula, tasting over 30 lab samples across many proofs and styles of whiskey. Spitball uses three kinds of cinnamon, along with traces of coffee and chocolate “to add a bit of depth on the finished palate,” Marra says. He went one step further—“kicking up the Scoville scale,” a measure of spicy heat—by adding capsicum, a kind of pepper, to the formula.

Without access to the proprietary formula of Fireball, Marra and his collaborators at the lab estimate that Spitball contains between a half and a third less sugar. “The flavor is reminiscent of Red Hot gumballs,” says Marra. “It drinks like a whiskey with a cinnamon flavor rather than a liqueur.”

Distributing around the Northeast, Cooperstown has had the most success in local on-premises sales. “A lot of bars in upstate New York like to play up the local angle,” says Marra, “so we’ve been going after that market.” A number of bars in Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo have swapped out Fireball for Spitball, eager to sell a local product and amenable to the comparable price point.  

Resurrecting a Military Tradition

Quincy Street Distillery, just outside Chicago in Riverside, Illinois, deviates even further from Fireball. The distillery’s Water Tower on Fire Cinnamon Whiskey, launched in February, is a version of its unaged corn whiskey steeped with cinnamon, then bottled at 90 proof. The whiskey eschews sugar altogether.

“I knew about Fireball and the other cinnamon whiskeys but didn’t pay much attention,” says Derrick Mancini, the owner and distiller—until a customer started buying up Quincy Street’s Water Tower White Lightning, an unaged corn whiskey, half a case at a time. How could he go through that much? It turned out that the customer was buying for the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hall, where “he’d put a few sticks of cinnamon in the bottle for a few days, and do shots of that.”

The notion piqued Mancini’s interest. As he talked to more and more people about the cinnamon flavoring, he found that it had a history, one often connected to the military. “I’d hear stories like, ‘My dad remembered doing this in the Air Force.’ It’s a Southern tradition, as best we can tell. I haven’t been able to document the whole history.”

But Mancini appreciated the tradition and modeled his Water Tower on Fire after it, without sugar. “We decided to make it the way these guys did at home,” he says, albeit with quite a bit more precision—90 percent Cinnamomum verum (also known as Ceylon cinnamon) was added, along with three other kinds of cinnamon.

“We’re all about the cinnamon. It makes sense in the tradition of whiskey generally,” says Mancini. “Aged whiskey is all about the wood, and cinnamon is a bark. So an unaged corn whiskey that extracts flavor from cinnamon bark—it’s not so surprising.

“From what we can tell, people have made flavored whiskey at home since time immemorial. We are in that tradition. Yes, we fall into a market category, but we’re doing the ‘real person, real history’ part of it. We’d like to break into and upend that market.”

Beyond ShotsCocktails and Sipping Whiskeys

Marra and Mancini believe their respective products hold up as sipping spirits—sophisticated, well-made whiskeys first and foremost. “Our drinker isn’t the typical Fireball drinker,” says Mancini. “They might actually detest Fireball and be hesitant at first but appreciate ours in the end. I say that Fireball is for kids, and this is for adults.”

For cocktails, Mancini finds that his Water Tower on Fire works in an Old Fashioned (no bitters required), with cider punches, and even with Coca-Cola, which with most cinnamon whiskeys would be far too sweet. And while Spitball is often ordered as a shot at the bar, thanks to its positioning as a Fireball alternative, Marra believes it holds its own on the rocks or as a cocktail—in a cinnamon-tinged Manhattan, for example, or mixed with apple cider or hot chocolate.

The major brands are also looking beyond cinnamon whiskey shots. “We do have a high percentage of shots, but we are seeing Tennessee Fire consumed in other ways as well,” says Casey Nelson, brand director of flavored whiskeys at Jack Daniel’s. “It’s complex enough to be appreciated on the rocks.” And apple cider and ginger beer are gaining ground as preferred mixers.

Looking Toward Expansion

While the explosion of growth in cinnamon whiskeys has slowed in the last few years, it hasn’t stopped. According to the IWSR, consumption of all flavored whiskeys grew steeply between 2011 and 2016, at an average annual rate of 50.7 percent in the United States. Growth slowed substantially between 2015 and 2016, however, to 7 percent in the American market. (Fireball would not comment on sales figures, and when asked how growth has shifted, replied, “This dragon shows no signs of slowing down.”)

For its part, Cooperstown Distillery is on track to sell 500 cases of Spitball in 2017, with 50 percent growth (to 750 cases) projected for 2018. However, challenges exist. As Marra acknowledges, “It’s a pretty saturated market.” On the one hand, there are Fireball and other heavyweights, including those of Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. On the other, numerous mass-market distilleries with no well-known brands have also jumped on the trend, putting out faux Fireballs, cinnamon-flavored bottom-shelf spirits designed to sell and sell cheaply. If a liquor store already has five or six cinnamon whiskeys, why the need for another?

As an added complication, Fireball and its ilk aren’t always taken seriously by liquor cognoscenti; such is its reputation that today’s microdistillery-obsessed, craft cocktail–drinking boozehound is likely to look down his or her nose at cinnamon whiskey (fairly or not). It is incumbent on the brands to prove that they’re something different. Marra often hosts category tastings for retailers and other industry professionals and says that Spitball is nearly always ranked first among cinnamon whiskeys. “These guys stock cinnamon whiskey,” he says, “but have they ever tasted one like this? I know it’s a cliché, but I really believe it’s true.”

Marra is encouraged by early success in his own region, upstate New York, and throughout the Northeast but acknowledges that major expansion doesn’t take place overnight. “We’d like to take the sales to another level,” he says, “but it might take somebody to buy out the Spitball brand.”

The newer Water Tower on Fire is “growing organically,” according to Mancini, with distribution in Illinois, along with New York and California through the web-based distribution platform LibDib. “And we are looking into distribution elsewhere.”

Both distillers say that they’ve found an eager audience in their own regions, and that even if it’s not growing as quickly as it once was, the market for cinnamon whiskey remains a healthy one. Whether converting Fireball fans to Spitball sippers, or persuading bourbon lovers to try Water Tower on Fire, both distilleries are finding success, one drinker at a time.

Carey Jones is the author of Brooklyn Bartender: A Modern Guide to Cocktails and Spirits and a frequent contributor to Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Saveur, and many other publications. She is a former managing editor of the James Beard Award–winning website Serious Eats.

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