How do you know when you’ve really made it in life? It depends on who you are and what racket you’re in. For charming chumps like us, success could mean dental insurance, a bed that doesn’t fold in half, or an honorably discharged student loan. For those of loftier falutions, arrival in the big leagues might be marked by the acquisition of an assistant or an unused car.

Even more ambitious folk gravitate toward fields with well-known mountaintops. Actors want Oscars. Pianists shoot for Carnegie Hall. Gymnasts go for gold. And flavored spirits marketers hope to land a signature cocktail on the Applebee’s menu.

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By this last measure, and most others, the pushers of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky have been phenomenally successful: Fireball is the fastest-growing liquor brand in America, with already-strong retail sales doubling from 2013 to 2014, so it’s no surprise that the Fireball Whiskey Lemonade headlines the ’Bee’s 2015 summer cocktail list.

Fireball, a cinnamon-spiked liqueur produced by the Sazerac Company, spent a couple decades under the radar as Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Whisky before a 2006 rebranding helped launch the 66-proof Canadian import’s climb up the American shot charts. It’s now the sixth most popular spirit in the country by retail sales volume, which doesn’t account for its even greater success in its natural habitat: hanging around a sticky barroom waiting for the chance to jump down the throats of post-teen screamers looking for a little something to eliminate their Bud Light breath and their inhibitions.

And if you need any more evidence that Fireball is a certified hit, consider the imitators it has launched. There are dozens of hot-cinnamon-flavored spirits out there now, many of them whiskey-based, and one of them made by the most iconic name in American booze: Jack Daniel’s. That’s right, the country’s best-selling brown liquor has seen fit to take on the red-hot Canuck with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, a 70-proof blend of cinnamon liqueur and Jack’s famous Old No. 7 sour mash whiskey. What say we pour a couple shots and have them fight it out?

Fireball

The test shot I took for this story (which I reluctantly sipped for the sake of accurate note-taking) was my first run-in with Fireball. That surely means I’ve been derelict in my professional duties, but I do most of my research before the streetlights come on, and Fireball is clearly designed for the wobblier hours of the night. What I’m saying is, I’m old. But the first whiff of Fireball made me feel 16 again, as it brought back pleasant, puke-y memories of Hiram Walker Red Hot Cinnamon Schnapps.

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The aroma is overwhelmingly sweet, pure artificial cinnamon without a hint of alcohol, never mind real whiskey. That said, nothing about Fireball smells undrinkable, though it does come across as even simpler than I’d imagined. The taste neither surprises nor disappoints. There’s less of an afterburn than might be expected, likely due to the combination of careful craftsmanship and relatively low alcohol. Sazerac wants you to enjoy your Fireball enough to have another one, so they keep it agreeably sticky and about 20 percent less potent than standard spirits.

Fireball’s motto, “Tastes Like Heaven, Burns Like Hell,” overstates both ends of the equation. It tastes like the dye left on your sweaty palms after you down a faceful of Red Hots, and it burns less than the average organic toothpaste. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, then you’ve got a fine ear for ringing endorsements. Fireball’s all right; it does what you expect it to do, but it doesn’t resemble whiskey in any way other than (artificial) color.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire

If my Fireball-free lifestyle weren’t enough to discredit me as booze blogger, how about this: I don’t like Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. And not out of snobbishness, either. I love plenty of cheaper, less reputable bourbons and near-bourbons, but Jack’s distinctly sweet taste has always turned me off.

This is a big-picture professional liability, but it’s useful for our purposes here today, as my aversion to JD eliminates the potential for a bias toward the more expensive, higher-born competitor. I am not at all predisposed to favor Tennessee Fire just because it purports to be a cinnamon’d version of a whiskey I don’t care for.

I expected there to be at least a smidgen of actual whiskey peeking around the edges of the cinnamon on this one, which is made by blending regular Jack Daniel’s with a liqueur, but I wasn’t prepared for the aroma to lean more heavily toward liquor than sugar. This smells 51 percent—hell, maybe 52 percent—like real whiskey! And for whatever reason, it didn’t smell off-puttingly Jackish to my heretical nose. The aroma suggested basic, honest bourbon blended with cinnamon schnapps, which is essentially what the label promises.

The cinnamon element was far more assertive come sipping time, but the great thing about the interplay between aroma and flavor is that your nose is sitting right there over your mouth: Even if there’s a bit too much sugar on your tongue, some of that whiskey sensation’s still wafting up your nostrils. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire “complex,” but it does hit you with two distinct notes at once, the sweet heat of the spiced liqueur along with the oaked heat of the whiskey. These two sources of warmth don’t combine to make Tennessee Fire hotter than Fireball—they’re about equal on that scale—but it does make it marginally more interesting.

Verdict

Both of these were better than I thought they’d be. I confess that I originally conceived of this story as a “Stop Drinking Fireball!” cranky-old-man rant, but upon inspection I must concede that Fireball’s a hell of a lot better than Jägermeister or most mixed-shot alternatives. But that doesn’t mean it’s quite good. Whereas Fireball is harmless and largely inoffensive, JD Fire goes the extra inch by displaying authentic whiskey character underneath the onslaught of hot candy juice. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire is the better cinnamon whiskey.


Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.

Image by Sam Woolley.

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