On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the recent accusations against Sazerac over Fireball Cinnamon — a lower-ABV, malt-based replica of its famous Fireball Whiskey with near-identical packaging. While allegedly misleading customers, the malted beverage has allowed Sazerac to expand sales and acquire shelf space in stores where beer is sold, but not liquor. Will more brands follow suit? Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the Friday VinePair Podcast, and Joanna this might be your last podcast for a while.
J: It might be, yes, for a while.
A: I didn’t want to say forever.
J: No, don’t say forever. I’m being written off.
A: No. It’s going to be the “Zach show” pretty soon. Anyways, yes, who knows? We’ll let the community know when it’s time.
J: Sure. Community.
A: Yes. There’s a lot of fans I’m sure that want to know. Yes, I mean, Zach already asked you what you’re looking forward to drinking, so hopefully there is a Manhattan on the rocks in your future, and otherwise, all good things.
J: Yes. I’ll be listening in.
Z: Is there a food item?
J: I really just would love some raw fish.
A: Really? Were you a big sushi person?
Z: Are you a big sushi person?
J: Yes. I do like sushi, just this whole idea of like-
Z: Some raw fish.
J: I did have some of the steak from Gage & Tollner, like the rare meat.
A: Some unpasteurized cheese straight to the face.
A: Join us and be like, just one hand’s going to be this crazy unpasteurized brie, and then the other hand just be like chugging a bottle of wine just like this has been the best ever. Let’s go, wine and cheese party motherf*ckers.
J: Oh, oysters. Come on. I know Zach can’t have them either, but I just would love a dozen oysters.
A: A dozen oysters. I love that for you.
A: That’s so good. Would Fireball be in your future?
J: No, typically.
A: Okay. Because that’s what we’re talking about today.
A: What we are talking about is a story that we actually, originally, were one of the ones to break a few weeks ago, which is that-
J: In a non-pay-walled way.
A: In a non-pay-walled way, motherf*ckers. It is unbeknownst to most people out there, most consumers, there are actually two Fireball products.
A: There is Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. The Fireball that is famous, the Fireball that everyone loves, which is a cinnamon-flavored whiskey-
A: -that you shoot mostly. I don’t know who puts it in, but it was one of the OG flavored whiskey-like shoot and whiskey brands that blew up, Skrewball followed in its wake. Lots of others like it. Fireball’s the original, I remember taking shots of it in college. I think I remember also coming home from college and actually, Darby Cicci who produces some of the podcasts now. His parents were really into Fireball. I remember going to a party at his parents’ house-
J: That’s so funny.
A: -and his parents pulling it out of the freezer and having my parents and us. They’re like, “When you’re in college you can drink, take shots of Fireball.” There is a second product that nobody, most consumers did not know was different, although Fireball swears that everyone did, called Fireball Cinnamon, which is not made with whiskey but is malted. It is actually a beer, which is crazy and is sold mostly in minis and in the hip flask plastic bottles. Always in plastic bottles at gas stations-
A: -bodegas. Right and it is one of the largest-selling brands in C-stores and it looks exactly like Fireball, but just says Fireball and then cinnamon. In very little type that is very hard to read, it says, malt — what is this, I can’t even read this. Can you read it? I can barely read the type. No, no, look at the front, which is what the consumer would see.
J: Oh, yes. Malt beverage with natural whiskey and other flavors and caramel color.
A: Can you even read that it says malt beverage. It’s so-
J: It’s very small.
A: -small. It’s probably 0.6 type.
Z: It’s the smallest legal print.
J: Smallest it can be.
A: Yes. There have now been some lawsuits claiming that Fireball and the company that owns them, which is Sazerac, is purposefully trying to pull one over on consumers. The consumers do not realize that this Fireball Cinnamon is actually not Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. Sazerac says, “We did this because there’s such demand for Fireball that we needed to be in the C-stores and there was no way to be in the C-stores, but be either a wine-based or malt-based beverage, so we just made the malt-based beverage. What’s the big deal?” Consumers are saying, “No, bro. I want to shoot actual cinnamon whiskey and this isn’t getting me f*cked up enough.” It’s just fascinating how big this has become. We’re going to try it in a little bit, but how big this has become and it’s just so blatantly, I feel like trying to be what it’s not. I don’t know.
J: It’s so interesting we have a wonderful Hop Take column from Dave Infante on this from a few weeks ago where he discusses this idea of spirits-based RTDs versus malt-based RTDs. It seems like Sazerac really struck something a long time ago. I don’t know how long the Fireball Cinnamon has been out. I was trying to look that up, but that they are in both spaces. It’s leading. It has now made Sazerac its sales of — malt-based sales now make it the 22nd largest beer vendor to date, which is wild. I think it’s so wiley of them in a way we are-
A: I like wiley. It’s very wiley of you.
J: Kind of.
Z: I feel like wiley is being even perhaps too kind. It’s a brazen attempt because what’s so strange about this whole thing is, as you just pointed out, Joanna, it’s hard to get a date on when Fireball Cinnamon debuted. They don’t want to talk a lot about it. Normally if you were launching a brand extension, you’d be like, “Here’s a bunch of promo sh*t about it. We’re launching Fireball Cinnamon. It’s the Fireball you love. Now you can buy it right in the gas station.” It is nothing of the kind. It is essentially an attempt to trade on the reputation of Fireball and assume that most people won’t notice the difference. Both because the difference on the label is very, very hard to pick out and intentionally made obscure, and because maybe the hope is that the flavor, such as it is, is close enough to the original Fireball that people don’t notice that it’s half as strong. I don’t know. It’s very weird. Again, brazen is maybe how I would choose to put it, and only because I’m not going to use maybe harsher terms that might be in the lawsuit that’s been filed. I do think it’s also, as a side note, funny, the crux of the lawsuit being like, “This product didn’t get me as f*cked up as I wanted to be.”
A: That’s what I’m saying. You were like, “I was ready to go ham and I was not able to.” It’s so good.
Z: Only when you half-ham, it’s not good.
A: It’s so good.
Z: Anyhow, but I do think the last thing I want to say about this is it does point out also and then it’s not really the main thrust of what we’re talking about or even what Dave wrote about, but also how just ludicrous the definitions around beer are. Because again, much like we’ve talked about with the lawsuit over whether the Corona hard seltzer is technically beer or not, that’s also pending. This assessment that Sazerac is the 22nd largest brewer in the country when they don’t make beer in the way we would think about it, is wild and maybe funny even if the rest of the story is less funny and more some form of maddening or just strange.
A: It’s just funny because when things like this happen and you know they’re going to happen, you just think to yourself, “Come on, alcohol, we were doing so well.” Then we decided to bamboozle people. I know that they will claim that they weren’t trying to do that. In their response, they’re like, “No, it just says Fireball Cinnamon. It doesn’t say whiskey.” Come the f*ck on.
J: The reason why we have this little bottle today is because I bought it at the bodega across the street a year ago because I found it so curious. How can you buy Fireball from the food bodega because it’s a liquor, but it’s not.
A: Here’s what I think is really interesting, Zach, is as you said, the lawsuit says, “I’m upset it didn’t get me f*cked up enough.” How many people do you think are buying this thinking it’s Fireball, and just housing them being like, “No, I had a better night last night than when I shot this many Fireballs a few nights ago from the ones I bought at the liquor store.” I wonder how many people have no clue.
Z: You’re saying Sazerac should defend itself on public — it’s performing a public service by reducing intoxicating-
J: No. I think this has been going on for a long time and people just haven’t realized, which is why now with this lawsuit, this story has blown up and it’s covered — I think CNN covered this. It’s swept media recently, which I think is so interesting because again, we don’t know how long this has been out there.
A: Again, it would not be right at the cash register at our bodega across the street from the office if it didn’t sell, they literally have it next to the gum. There’s this huge bucket of Fireballs right next to the cash register, unf*ckingbelievable.
Z: I think the fascinating thing is how did no one else do this?
A: That’s also nice and fascinating. Why are there not other ones there? Because especially a lot of the other flavored alcohol products you would think could have done this.
Z: Why isn’t Crown Royal Apple right there or something?
A: You’re totally right. It’s amazing that only Fireball has done this. I don’t know, maybe is it because the cinnamon flavor is just, because it’s so aggressive in a Fireball Whiskey, maybe it’s easier to pull this off in a malt beverage in a way that maybe, I don’t know. Because Crown Apple still, it is appley, but you do really taste the whiskey.
Z: That’s true.
A: What I remember, the only time I’ve had Fireball when I was, a long time ago with Darby Cicci’s parents, is that when I’ve had it, it was very, very, very Big Red-flavored. It was all-
J: Spicy cinnamon.
A: -spicy cinnamon. There was really not a lot of — I was struggling to find the whiskey, but let’s be honest, I wasn’t struggling to find the whiskey at the time because I was too young and I was just like, “Let’s go.” That’s what I’m curious about here is if it is just all Big Red flavor, and if that’s the case, or what’s the other one? One is Red Hots, that’s the flavor that I remember from it. If that’s the case, then I don’t know. Maybe that’s why they’re getting away with it. Zach, do you have any in front of you?
Z: I do not. No.
A: I’m going to-
J: I’m sorry.
A: I’ll take one for the team.
J: I don’t know. I’ve had that for a very long time.
A: I’m going to taste it. Here we go. I want to just tell you on the nose, it’s all Big Red. You want to smell it? It literally is just like a Red Hot, taste it straight from the bottle.
Z: I also want to say this is probably the foremost example of service journalism this podcast has performed in a while. You’re welcome folks here.
J: I wish we had a side-by-side.
A: The color is that of when you’re dehydrated in the morning, you have to go to the bathroom, just letting people know what it is.
Z: Perhaps after a night of drinking Fireball.
A: Yes, but super Big Red. Here we go.
J: It’s warm.
Z: Do you think it stays cold in the bucket by the cash register at the bodega, Joanna?
J: It’s true.
Z: Holy sh*t, just tastes like-
J: I don’t think people mind this.
A: No, I think they like it. This tastes like a cinnamon drink.
J: With whiskey flavor?
Z: Natural whiskey flavor. Oh no, natural whiskey and other flavor.
A: Here’s what it doesn’t have that people would not get unless you were someone that was probably drinking them side by side, which they’re not. Here’s what I think this probably pulls off very well. When people drink Fireball shots, I think that often the Fireball is shaken and then poured into shots, so it gets watered down.
J: Oh sure.
A: This tastes watered down. This tastes thin. It does not have the viscosity you get and the body you get from a spirit, from ethanol. It is much more just cinnamony sweet. If you were to take a Fireball probably and let it sit and melt with ice and then you drink it, which I think is how a lot of people probably wind up having it. They’re not catching the nuanced difference when they’re buying this at the bodega and probably shooting at room temperature, because the bodega across the street is not selling this, in the freezer section, in the cooler section. They’re literally selling it at the cash register. I think people are slugging this back, before they drink a beer or on their way to going out. They’re going here, they’re grabbing some Gatorade and whatever for the end of the night and they’re grabbing a few of these to shoot with their friends on the way to the bar, the party, the club, whatever. That’s why these are popular. It’s crazy. Guess what? I think Sazerac is going to keep making these.
J: Oh my God. Why?
A: They’ll increase the type maybe a little bit, and they’ll be fine. They’re going to print money with this. Good for you, Sazerac.
Z: It remains to be seen if some of these other flavored whiskey brands follow them into this space. Are we going to get a Skrewball malt? I don’t know. I think it’s-
A: Why would you not?
Z: -fascinating to see,
A: Because I think, again, with Skrewball, Zach, I think what I remember from us tasting that on the pod, it’s very peanut butter-forward.
J: Yes. Very peanut butter.
A: You could pull this off too. Isn’t this also Fireball? Isn’t this in partnership with ABI? Isn’t ABI helping them make this? Wasn’t that part of Dave’s article? There’s something about that, or they did initially?
J: No, they have distribution.
A: Distribution through them. ABI, their sales user is attaching this against all the f*cking Bud Light and all the other stuff they’re selling Stella, Michelob Ultra into all the C-stores. Unreal, wow.
J: I think it’s like that.
A: Wow. Joanna, I shoot a Fireball shot for you. Godspeed, we wish you the best and we will talk to you soon. Maybe we’ll talk to you next Monday.
J: Maybe, yes.
A: Maybe we’ll talk to you on Monday. Who knows?
J: We’ll see.
A: We may not, so all the best.
J: It’s been real guys.
A: Great things. We wish everything you wish yourself.
J: I can’t wait to be back.
A: Can’t wait to have you back.
Z: We’ll see you on the other side.
A: Zach, I’ll talk to you Monday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.
If you are listening to this on a device right now through an app, however you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show. And now for some totally awesome credits. So, the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters and in Seattle, Washington, in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network. I’d also love to give a shout-out to our editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, who joins us on every single podcast as our third and most important host.
Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.