Image source: Shea Huening via Flickr

If you've had a shot in a bar in the past 12 months, you're probably familiar with Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. The flavored whiskey with a kick of spice has gone from a forgotten brand to the hottest shot in the world almost overnight, kicking Jagermeister off of its post as "go-to" shot.

The story of how Fireball came to be a billion-dollar brand reads like a rags-to-riches story born in the midst of the college party scene.

The under-appreciated doctor
From an alcoholic beverage standpoint, Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey has been around for about three decades. It was developed in the mid-1980s and sold, primarily in Canada, as Dr. McGillicuddy's Fireball Whiskey. Dr. McGillicuddy's has something of a cult following in parts of the country, but it's never been a household name like Fireball has become today.  

In 1989, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, who owned the Dr. McGillicuddy line, sold its rights to The Sazerac Company, who has owned it ever since. Still, for 18 years, Fireball stood almost unnoticed under the Dr. McGillicuddy brand.

Shots are Fireball's friend. Image source: Ted Van Pelt via Flickr.

Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is born
In 2007, Dr. McGillicuddy's Fireball Whiskey got a kick from a rebranding campaign and a new name: Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. It may have been an old recipe, but the new look and feel of the logo gave the product a cool factor Dr. McGillicuddy never had. Brand rep Richard Pomes made Nashville his early target market, selling the liquor as an easy shot for the city's party scene. The strategy then shifted to include college markets, and it spread around the country like wildfire.  

By 2011, retail sales of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey were still just $1.9 million, according to research company IRI, but sales were exploding. By 2014, that figure had exploded to $131 million, and Fireball was a household name.

Add in the bar scene, and the numbers are even more impressive. IWSR, which provides data for wine and spirits, estimates that Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey made $863.5 million in sales last year -- double the year before, and easily topping the $525.3 million made by Jagermeister. 

"Jag" used to be the go-to shot at bars and in college, but Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey's easy-to-drink flavor and low price point has made it a must-have on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Keys to Fireball's success
Making an under-the-radar drink into an international phenomenon isn't easy, but there are a few things Fireball has working in its favor:

  • Easy to drink: The reaction I often hear from someone trying Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey for the first time is something like, "That's pretty good." Not a bad reaction compared to shots (vodka, tequila, whiskey) people usually cringe at taking.
  • Cheap: A liter of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is about $24, around $2-$3 less than Jagermeister. On college campuses, even a couple of dollars' difference can go a long way. 
  • Easy to remember: You've probably been at the bar and asked, "What shot should we take?" Fireball is not only a favorite, but it's an easy shot to remember, making it a quick order for large groups.

A shot that's cheap, tasty, and easy to remember has combined with a little marketing genius to become the favorite drink we know today. But competitors aren't going to let Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey become a billion-dollar brand without a fight.

Can Fireball hold off competitors as they heat up?
Jim Beam and Jack Daniels are trying to turn their whiskeys into successful shots with Kentucky Fire and Tennessee Fire, respectively. It's tough to knock an incumbent like Fireball off the pedestal with a direct competitor, but Fireball may already be peaking. IWSR says sales are flat from its peak in December 2014, and considering its rise to the top, I wouldn't be surprised to see a slowdown soon.

The party may not last forever, but the story of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey rising from the ashes of a forgotten brand to become the world's favorite party shot is an amazing one. If someone could replicate, it there could be another billion-dollar brand hidden somewhere in the world of booze. But replicating Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey's success will be easier said than done.