SOME LIKE IT HOT

For Weekly SurgeJune 18, 2014 

Fireball Whiskey Borgata

CHARLES SLATE — cslate@thesunnews.com Buy Photo

“Tastes Like Heaven. Burns Like Hell.”

This is more than just a catchy tag line. It is a lifestyle. A rite of passage. A damn good time.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky has gone from being a mildly-selling liqueur to holding ranks with some of the oldest distilleries on the planet when it comes sales, outpacing such popular brands as Jameson Whiskey and Patron tequila. Retail sales of the hooch brought in a mere $1.9 million in 2011, as reported by Bloomberg Business Week. The same source reported a staggering $61 million in retail sales for the hot cinnomon-flavored brand in 2013. Two years and, nearly $60 million in sales later, Fireball is going stronger than ever nationally, internationally and right here in the Myrtle Beach area.

Jeff Hargett, manager at Harold’s on the Ocean, also known as HOTOS, says that Fireball sales are still on the rise in North Myrtle Beach. HOTOS is positioned directly on the ocean and caters to a wide demographic, the same target market as Fireball. Hargett says that he is finding that so far this spring, Fireball is bringing in even more sales than last year in both shots and mixed cocktails.

Signs adorn nearly every bar on the Grand Strand, Fireball specials are a staple of advertisements of the most popular bars and, possibly the best marketing tool to date: people like how it tastes.

The taste? It’s somewhat like a cross between liquified versions of Big Red chewing gum and Atomic Fireball candies with a blast of Goldschlager.

How hot is Fireball going to be in one of the nation’s hottest vacation and party spots (that’s Myrtle Beach, in case you were wondering) this summer and who is responsible for this devilish nectar’s proliferation along the Grand Strand?

Is it similar to the way Pabst Blue Ribbon exploded on the Grand Strand, as chronicled in our July 2010 cover story, where the retro beer’s distributor, the Yahnis Company, saw a 155 percent increase in sales in one year?

That’s somewhat of a mystery, but one which Surge attempted to unravel.

While the growth is staggering, it did not happen overnight and, ironically, it did not happen with a mega-budget advertising campaign.

And of course with success, comes the barrage of imitators, as everyone from Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Fire to Jose Cuervo’s cinammon-spiked tequila known as Cinge.

Starting a fire

Fireball was introduced to the public in the mid-1980s in Canada as part of Seagram’s line of flavored schnapps. Under a label called “Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey” the original version of Fireball was on the market in Canada. It was created by a bartender to “warm people from the arctic chill” that swept through Canada that year by adding cinnamon to whiskey, as the official Web site reports. The first version became popular among Canadians as a winter sipper. In fact, some hockey players were known to take a swig before they hit the ice.

In 1989, as the flavored schnapps craze of the time waned, the rights to the label were purchased by Sazerac Inc., a New Orleans-based company. Sazerac also owns Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, which did not make this purchase seem out of character for the company. Sazerac acted as co-owner at this time and that made the product grow stagnant and avoid distribution in the United States. As trends were shifting, Sazerac, finally, purchased the entire label from its Canadian colleagues in 2007.

As the sole owner of the cinnamon whiskey, Sazerac moved to re-brand it and make it a freestanding product that had little to no association with the other Sazerac products. Priming it for the American and European markets required many changes. From the label to the name, everything changed. This was a significant decision.

Sazerac prides itself on word-of-mouth advertising and privacy of its own affairs, but the company seems to be somewhat tight-lipped to the media about the blazing success of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. But we did find this quote from a 2013 Huffington Post report: “We don’t go into bars and hire girls and force people to take a shot,” Sazerac spokesman Steve Schmitz told The Huffington Post. “What we have been doing is pushing engagement with people in the industry, particularly bartenders.”

The company is known for its ability to produce and re-brand products. Taking something that exists and making it better through flavor or image is its forte. In fact, at its Buffalo Trace facility, the company produces dozens of labels of bourbon, including Pappy Van Winkle, which is considered the most sought-after bottle of bourbon in the world. Sazerac had placed Fireball on a track towards innovation. Whether it is an innovative product or not is of no consequence, Sazerac made Fireball Cinnamon Whisky seem new and the next big thing to our bars and their consumers.

How would Sazerac grow sales of Fireball by almost $60 million in just two years? A magician never reveals his secrets, but all the tricks of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky are not so secret. Just smart.

How It Got Here?

John Campbell, manager of The Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet says “Fireball buried Jägermeister” as the No. 1 shot at the bar. So much so that Dead Dog sells nearly as much Fireball as it does house vodka. Plowing through nearly 10 cases of the golden liquid each week. For those of you keeping track, that is 120 bottles. “It has taken on a life of its own” says Campbell. A life indeed. House vodka has been the $2 favorite in Myrtle Beach for years. While not every bar offers it at that price, for a shot to encroach on that title is, almost, unheard of.

Island Bar and Grill near Surfside Beach also reports that its Fireball sales outpace vodka.

Sazerac set out to achieve this feat by doing, almost, the complete opposite of what Jägermeister had done to grow its brand. Jägermeister was holding down the No. 1 shot position on the Grand Strand for some time. Just as it appeared to be settled in for the long haul, the Sazerac team put an end to Jager’s run.

The first thing that stood in favor of Fireball was that people liked the taste. Jägermeister cannot claim that fact when it comes to flavor. Then, the brand did not disclose much information in regards to its location of origin or heritage. This is a traditional Sazerac move as the company is very secretive about its inner workings. So much so that Republic National Distribution Company, which distributes Fireball in Myrtle Beach, would not comment, in any capacity, without consent from Sazerac. We tried multiple times to get in touch with Republic National and Sazerac for this article but at press time there had been no response.

Finally, Fireball had an ordinary bottle and label without metaphor or mystery behind it. It was approachable in every way possible.

As whiskey and flavored spirits grew in popularity, the market was primed for Fireball to make a move. Vodka had seen nearly every flavor imaginable and whiskey was on the rise.

Campbell says that after the tragic fire that destroyed most of Dead Dog, Fireball brought out its now-signature firetruck as a promotion. He says from that point forward that Fireball “had a life of its own.”

E-Marketing

Fireball hired its first brand ambassador in 2010. A 25-year-od actor named Richard Pomes was sent around the country with samples of the cinnamon whisky to convert the masses. He was armed with some social media accounts and the promise of a good time. His job and mission was to get Fireball into as many mouths as he could.

Holly Perez, current resident and aormer spirits professional in Myrtle Beach, says,“Social media has had a huge impact on the growth and I believe that the Fireball trend will be hot for a while.” Even today, social media is still buzzing with tales of Fireball. It has been the backbone of its popularity on the beach from the beginning.

While Pomes began his efforts in Nashville, Tenn., he soon branched out into other markets. Focusing on college towns and tourist destinations, he knew how to reach a broader audience with a smaller stroke. Seasonal residents, vacationers and transients could take the word of Fireball around the world for the company with much less effort and money than expensive advertising blitzes, documenting their experiences with Fireball through the social media outlets and making Fireball the life of the party.

Myrtle Beach was, obviously, a perfect fit.

Jason Black, manager of The Boathouse just west of Myrtle Beach proper at Fantasy Harbour says that Fireball has outsold its competition with less marketing. “They brought some shot girls in and that was it,” he said.

The Boathouse is home of Sunday Funday and Black says that it not uncommon for the Intracoastal Waterway venue to sell 4-to-6 cases of Fireball on those days. Otherwise, he echoed the numbers and thoughts of the other high-volume bars on the beach.

Given that Fireball is a liqueur and only 33 percent alcohol by volume does not matter. The spicy flavor makes it feel like it is a potent whiskey. The sweetness makes it bearable at the same time. It, somehow, makes men feel like men and women feel like women. Thus, we all drink together. The pictures fluttering through the social media sites and even on the Fireball Web site are of mixed company who were both happy with the taste. A picture says a thousand words.

One of the controversial tactics that started to get the audience engaged through social media was drinking contests. Asking bars to have Fireball drinking contests and post the pictures on Facebook and Twitter drew in more, so called, “brand ambassadors” as the public started to spread the word to all corners of the globe. Marketing the bar, bartenders and the drinkers on an international platform was a key movement.

Celebrity Backing

Celebrity endorsements are vital in the rise of a brand. Due to Pomes‘ work in Nashville, Fireball Whiskey was privy to many celebrities and Music City’s bevy of country musicians. In June of 2013, the Nashville Business Journal reported that Fireball was “poised to overtake Jack Daniels” as the shot of choice in Music City.

In the fall of 2012, Hayden Panettierre, star of the television show “Nashville” on ABC, took a shot of Fireball with Chelsea Handler on her talk show “Chelsea Lately.” Not only did the pair drink the liquor, but they described the taste. No puckered faces were made and it was described as “good.” It is always better if someone else says something nice about you.

From famous rockers the Kings of Leon to stars from “The Deadliest Catch”, Fireball has seen tremendous support and accidental marketing from the entertainment industry. Being that we live in Myrtle Beach where country music is a major food group, there is no surprise that we fell victim to some of these advertisements as well.

Florida Georgia Line sings about Fireball Whiskey in the duo’s No. 1 hit “Round Here.” The line goes: “And that Fireball Whisky whispers temptation in my ear...” You probably just sang it. Hitting the charts in June 2013 and echoing along country music airwaves all summer long were just the tip of the iceberg. Bands were blasting cover versions in our bars, resorts and public gatherings. That song helped to anchor Fireball as a staple early in the tourist season last year in Myrtle Beach.

Into The Future

Once a trend sets in, everyone wants in on it. Eventually, it dies an untimely death of overexposure.

Black, of The Boathouse, reports that he does not see Fireball going anywhere in the near future. Describing it as the dominant brand over the other shots. So popular, in fact, that big name companies are now trying to duplicate it.

The people that do not particularly enjoy shots are wanting to get in on the craze and are creating a very different type of product use.

Fireball has built an arsenal of cocktail recipes on its Web site. More importantly, the brand’s Pinterest board boasts everything from Fireball lollipops to brandied peaches. Things that the local bar-goers could not, and probably do not want to, even fathom. As it turns out, you do not even have to drink alcohol to be a Fireball fanatic. The strategy of bringing the already popular shooter to the home cook, cocktail enthusiast and Pinterest junkie was nothing short of genius.

It appears that the juggernaut of the spirits industry has not reached its destination. Anchored by deep roots in social media and in the minds of the people that drink it, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky has been developed as a brand and grown by the very people that drink it. The method to the madness was intentional. Whether Fireball has used all its tricks in the marketing bag is yet to be seen. The strategy utilized up to this point has worked and continues to propel this brand toward a long term stay in our local bars.

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