On Being a Lover of Eau de Vie in the Age of Fireball
Thoughts on fine spirits during a week when the maker of Pappy Van Winkle is sued for fraud for its ubiquitous, low-end cinnamon swill.
We’re always told that, in life, we can’t “have it both ways.” Apparently this maxim does not apply to corporate spirits brands. A company like Sazerac, for instance, can build a prestige reputation upon its super-premium brands, such as the coveted, overhyped Pappy Van Winkle and Blanton’s bourbons or its new foray into Cognac. But, at the same time, it can also shamelessly peddle garbage like Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey.
So I’ll confess that it made me chuckle when I read the news yesterday about a class-action lawsuit filed against Sazerac over the alleged misleading labeling of another Fireball product. The lawsuit centers around Fireball Cinnamon—a lower-proof, malt beverage knock-off of the original cinnamon-flavored whiskey that is sold for 99 cents in mini bottles at grocery stores, gas stations, and other places that aren’t allowed to sell liquor. As the Washington Post reported:
People buying small bottles of Fireball Cinnamon at their local convenience store might be surprised to learn that they’re not getting the same stuff that comes from the liquor store—and that difference is at the center of a lawsuit in which a customer is suing the maker of both beverages.
“Fireball Cinnamon Whisky,” the spicy-hot booze sold in liquor stores, is the drink most people are probably more familiar with. But “Fireball Cinnamon”….which debuted in 2020, is actually a malt beverage flavored to taste like whiskey; it’s sold in small bottles that usually go for 99 cents.
A recent lawsuit filed against Sazerac, which makes both, claims that the convenience-store version is misleading, because the packaging is almost identical to its boozy older sibling, and one would have to read the very fine print on the bottle to know that it wasn’t just a smaller version of the popular liquor.
To be sure, this lawsuit feels like the consumer-fraud version of ambulance chasing. The plaintiff’s attorney (known as the “Vanilla Vigilante”) is famous for filing hundreds of class-action lawsuits against food companies. One might legitimately wonder who’s been “hurt” by confusing Fireball Cinnamon with Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. In the state of mind and sobriety when someone, in a gas station, impulsively buys a 99-cent mini-bottle of Fireball…let’s just say maybe the lower-proof option is doing them a favor.
In any case, I’m glad this lawsuit is happening and has been widely reported upon, because it shines a light on a disquieting divide that we’ve been observing in the spirits industry for a number of years. On the one hand, you have overhyped whiskey (such as 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, selling to collectors for hundreds and thousands of dollars). On the other hand, there’s 99-cent Fireball.
As with so many other things in America, the top end and the low end are growing further and further apart. I’m concerned about the effect of that divide on the market for all the good-value, quality spirits in the middle. I worry about the market’s ability to even discern what “value” and “quality” even mean anymore. I talk a little about this my recent piece on Armagnac.
As I read about the Fireball lawsuit, I happened to be sipping an ethereal ounce of a magical schnapps from Austria: Rochelt Wachau Apricot, one of the finest spirits in the world. This Alpine spirit is sourced from a special variety of apricot only grown in the Wachau, Austria’s most prestigious wine region. The orchard keepers wait patiently until the apricots are so fully ripe that they gently fall to the ground. Once distilled, the spirit is rested for seven years in a specially-designed glass balloon, covered only by a delicate cloth.
When you can find it, Rochelt Wachau Apricot is sold for about $400 per 375 mililiters (ie. a half bottle). That means this single ounce of apricot schnapps I enjoyed costs about the same as 31 mini-bottles of Fireball Cinnamon. Conversely, the cost of the entire bottle of Rochelt would buy you maybe a shot of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle at a posh whiskey bar.
Now, there’s no denying that Rochelt makes expensive spirits. That particular price tag is likely higher than most of us would ever spend. But in the grand scheme of a spirits market gone mad, does Rochelt actually offer “value”? That’s a more nebulous question. One I will try to answer in a roundabout way this week, which by the way is Schnapps Week (and I’m offering a Schnapps Schubscription Schpecial!)
Happy Schnapps Week!
Taking a step back, I would argue that the whole category of clear fruit brandies called eaux de vie by French speakers or schnapps by German speakers represents some of the best quality and value among all spirits.
I’m talking here about unoaked brandies made from apricots, cherries (kirsch), pears (Poire Williams) plums (slivovitz), or any other fruits—quince, elderberries, damson plum— or pretty much anything that grows: carrots, pine buds from Douglas fir trees, whatever.
It was only last week that I decided this would be Schnapps Week. This was after an amazing dinner in New York at Koloman, a wonderful newish Austrian-French spot (let’s actually call it Neo-Continental Cuisine?) named after Koloman Moser, the artist who helped found the Vienna Secession art movement. My epiphany came after our wide-ranging meal of snapper crudo, celery root tartare, tafelspitz-short terrine, and schnitzel (see, Neo-Continental Cuisine) paired with blaufränkisch from Burgenland.
Sommelier Katja Scharngl then poured us a gorgeoous Reisetbauer schnapps made from wild rowanberries grown in Austria at over 2,000 feet elevation. I hadn’t tasted this spirit since I was researching Boozehound more than a decade ago, and it was still memorable and transcendent. That tasting in 2009, in Linz, Austria with Hans Reisetbauer himself, had been life changing. I felt really lucky to revisit this rowanberry schnapps once again at Koloman. (You can find Reisetbauer Rowanberry here for $111)
Yet while my dining companions said, politely, that they enjoyed the rowanberry schnapps…eh, I’m not so sure they were totally sold. Among all the things I champion, these are the toughest sell to my friends and colleagues. In fact, I’d love to hear from readers about their experiences with schnapps and eau de vie.
There’s a whole wild world of clear fruit brandies. But for some reason Americans always seem to fear clear 80-proof spirits served in tiny glasses. It’s sort of a fact of American life. I guess the fear is these spirits are going to burn on the way down (as if vodka, tequila, or Fireball don’t?). If schnapps are well-made, they absolutely do not.
Another reason for their lack of popularity is that the word schnapps has taken on a very bad association with things like Rumple Minze, Goldschläger, and Peachtree “schnapps”—especially bad among people of my generation who drank them as shots or in Fuzzy Navels in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, all of these awful spirits are lower-proof liqueurs and not schnapps at all. Schnapps has no added sugar.
Good eau de vie is a complex, dry, delicate spirit, and perhaps that’s what makes it hard to understand for someone who loves, say, bourbon. An eau de vie should be the very essence of the ripe fruit used to distill it—nothing else. Think of it as a snapshot of the fruit harvest. It’s a spirit sold in small bottles that you nip at over time, a perfect way to end a meal or an evening.
Maybe I’m Actually an Anti-Influencer?
Just before the pandemic, I’d read a New York Times article that asked, “Could you Be an Anti-Influencer?” Apparently, based on a study of purchasing patterns at a national convenience store chain, some consumers are drawn over and over to unpopular products—Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, Frito-Lay Lemonade, and Cheetos Lip Balm were given as examples.
“We looked in the data and saw there were some customers who were really good at picking out failures,” said one of the study’s authors, economist Catherine Tucker of MIT. Researchers called these people “harbingers of failure.” Further, they found that these harbingers cluster in similar ZIP codes (“water seeking its own level”) and even regularly donated money to political candidates who ended up losing their races. Unsurprisingly, property values in ZIP codes with lots of harbingers of failure consistently under perform the broader real-estate market.
“I think what we’re picking up on is that there are just some people who, for whatever reason, have consistently non-majority tastes,” said Tucker. “They like that odd house. That political candidate everyone else finds off-putting. They like Watermelon Oreos.”
After reading that, I suddenly felt seen, as if my entire life was being explained to me. Maybe I am on a completely different wavelength than other consumers. I’ve spent years extolling the virtues of obscure wines and spirits. If you don’t know it or can’t pronounce it, I’m all over it.
This week, then, is my annual attempt to convince readers to finally submit to the pleasures of schnapps and eau de vie. On Friday, I will publish my list of top fruit brandy picks—and you will be surprised how affordable many of them are.
And not one of them will you find has a knock-off with a misleadering label that’s for sale in a gas station.