We need to talk about cinnamon whiskey. I know, I know, if you’re reading The Whiskey Wash, you’re probably not the guy or gal down at the club ordering rounds of Fireball shots for you and your 20 closest friends. (Or hey, maybe you are? No judgment here.)
But even if you’d rather permanently shelve your Glencairn than sully it with cinnamon-flavored whiskey, the stuff might be impacting you all the same. Fireball and other cinnamon whiskies are one of the hottest segments in spirits, and some of your favorite brands are scheming about how to get in on the party.
In 2011, Fireball had less than $2 million in annual sales. Thanks to a social media blitz and nationwide marketing campaign, sales grew to $63 million in 2013 and a whopping $130 million in 2014, an average annual growth rate of about 184%.
That crazy growth is leading even straight-faced whiskey industry leaders like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels to introduce new sweetened, cinnamon-flavored whiskies to the market in an effort to compete with the Fireball juggernaut.
While Fireball and its knockoffs are clearly not the choice of connoisseurs, their popularity among younger drinkers might point to future growth in the whiskey segment. Chris Fletcher from Jack Daniels thinks of flavored whiskey as a gateway drink, telling us “today’s Tennessee Honey drinker will hopefully be tomorrow’s Old No. 7 Drinker.” So scoff at Fireball all you want, but it may be initiating the next generation’s whiskey drinkers into the fold (perhaps “hazing” is a better word).
In a spirit of scientific inquiry, I put my tastebuds on the line and tasted five different bottles of cinnamon-flavored whiskey (you’re welcome). I’ll be honest – it was a slog, especially after tasting all of the Old Rip Van Winkle bourbons immediately beforehand. (Incidentally, both brands – Old Rip Van Winkle and Fireball – are owned by Sazerac. Talk about diversified!)
All five stated somewhere on the label “best served chilled,” so I stuck these bottles in the fridge for an hour or two before imbibing. Frankly, they could have been a lot colder. As spirits get warmer, flavors are amplified, and there aren’t many flavors in these “whiskies” you want to experience any more than you have to.
A note on ratings: If I were to rate these on a 0-5 scale, all would come in at zero, and that’s not much fun to read. So I ranked these in order of least to most favorite, with least favorite coming in at number 5.
Yukon Jack Wicked Hot
Oh Yukon Jack – don’t hang up your gold pan just yet. This release from Diageo marks the nadir of my tasting experience. The nose reminds me of the lumber department at Home Depot – musky, musty sawdust coupled with a bit of painter’s putty. On the palate, it’s even worse (it doesn’t even really taste safe to drink, to be honest). It’s aggressively spicy with a long, horrible finish reminiscent of those little balsa wood model airplanes, all raw wood and hobby glue. The worst of the bunch, hands down. Fifth place
The undisputed king of cinnamon-flavored sorta-whiskies. The back label reads: “What you have here is smooth whisky with a fiery kick of red hot cinnamon. It tastes like heaven, burns like hell. What happens next is up to you.”
If it were up to me, what would happen next is upending this bottle directly into the kitchen sink. Fireball has an intensely chemical aroma that smells just like the grape-scented blue Mr. Sketch marker. On the palate it’s distressingly viscous and alarmingly sweet, with very little in the way of whiskey flavor. The cinnamon flavor is moderate but building, accompanied by a hint of anemic green apple in the finish. An instant headache. Fourth place
Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire
I was hopeful about this one. Jack Daniels is a great historic distillery that makes products with integrity – perhaps their cinnamon whiskey would have more to offer than the others.
Alas. Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire has a strange medicinal smell with a hint of elderflower, an aroma many find unpleasantly similar to cat urine. The palate is a slight improvement over the nose, although the mouth feel is strangely dusty, like taking a bite of straight powdered cinnamon. Instead of much spice or heat in the finish, there’s just a grim metallic bitterness. Third place
SinFire Cinnamon Whiskey
SinFire is made by Hood River Distillers, an almost 100-year-old regional distillery in Hood River known for its wide selection of bottom-shelf offerings. I didn’t expect a lot from SinFire, so it was nice to find out that my expectations were (kind of) exceeded.
SinFire has the purest cinnamon aroma of all five, exactly like a combination of Atomic Fireballs and Hot Tamales. The flavor is mercifully brief, with a long, relatively spicy aftertaste complete with a hint of grape Jello in the finish. Moderately inoffensive. I’m going to call this a home state win. Second place
Jim Beam Kentucky Fire
Can Jim Beam, another great whiskey distillery, be the savior of the cinnamon-flavored category? Encouragingly, the answer is: sort of!
Jim Beam Kentucky Fire was my favorite of the bunch, for whatever that’s worth. The aroma reminds me a craft rye whiskey, perhaps a little inexpertly made, with a good punch of cinnamon as well as a kind of vegetal funk. In the palate there’s beeswax and a mild suggestion of cinnamon spice that builds in the finish.
Of the five, this one tastes the most like whiskey, albeit not very good whiskey. But kudos to Jim Beam (I guess) for making the cinnamon whiskey that made me feel the least like barfing. First place
Drinking five cinnamon-flavored whiskies one after the other really made me feel sad about the state of the world. Through a rapidly building headache, I wondered – is this what we’ve come to as a nation of drinkers? We truly prefer a beverage that tastes like a melted gummy candy over any one of the literally thousands of wonderful spirits, beers, and wines out there, all made with care, just waiting to enhance our lives if we’d only let them? What does that say about us, as a people? Is it too late to change direction, or are we doomed to a future of ever-sweeter, ever-grapier concoctions designed to deliver the drinker’s equivalent of a Halloween-night sugar rush?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but if you’re in the market for five mostly-full bottles of cinnamon-flavored “whiskey,” I know somebody looking to unload a few.
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Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...