Here at BottleHound, we're big fans of fernet, a botanical-infused spirit that may remind novices of Listerine but inspires devotion among industry insiders. In the mid-19th century, right around the same time that Bernandino Branca was making his first batches of Italy’s most famous fernet, a German entrepreneur was opening a vinegar factory that his son would later turn into a distillery. Their flagship spirit? Another herbal liqueur marketed as medicinal, infused with a list of botanicals more than twice as long as Fernet-Branca’s recipe -- 56, vs. the Italian product’s 27 -- and with a taste that, like fernet, can be described as “challenging.” So why isn’t Jägermeister a darling of the craft cocktail scene?
Blame an American importer named Sidney Frank, the Jägerettes, and a certain energy drink that co-opted the German liqueur at exactly the wrong moment in drinking history. In the early 1970s, the Jägermeister brand recognized that its product -- whose name means “Master Hunter” and which was originally promoted as a traditional digestif -- wasn’t connecting with contemporary youth, and the company began sponsoring soccer and motor racing. Around the same time, Frank was looking for an unusual product to bring to the U.S. market, and Jägermeister was up for grabs. He got a break when a Baton Rouge newspaper declared that it was “like instant Valium,” and he capitalized on that momentum by creating the Jägerettes, a sales force in fishnet stockings who were deployed to pour shots in college bars.
And then came the Jägerbomb. In the tradition of every other drink ending in the word “bomb,” a shot of Jäger is dropped into a pint glass containing half a can of Red Bull. Born in Lake Tahoe circa 1997 -- ten years after the energy drink first hit the market -- and served to exhausted skiers who wanted to party when they came in off the slopes, the Jägerbomb is said to pump you up and soothe you down at the same time. Unfortunately, the combo can cause irregular heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and even strokes, according to several medical studies.
The Jägerbomb has also had a devastating effect on the liqueur’s reputation and image. The shot + energy drink combo -- never actually promoted by the Jägermeister company itself, by the way -- has linked the spirit in the minds of a generation of drinkers with, in the words of one BottleHound observer, “nights they’ll never forget and can’t really remember.” The fact that the Jägerbomb became a phenomenon just moments, culturally speaking, before the rise of the craft cocktail movement meant that the same bartenders and drinkers who have embraced fernet and other amari -- similar products with botanical bitterness and European pedigrees -- have turned their backs on the German spirit.
Is there a third act ahead for Jägermeister, though? After life as a medicinal tipple for German grandpas and as a party shot for college kids, can it make a comeback when we’ve all run out of other spirits to explore?