When booze baron Sidney Frank tasted Jägermeister for the first time, he said it tasted like money. "Money," perhaps, is an understatement: the herbal liqueur — a "complex, spicy, and soul-warming" or "like Robitussin," depending on whom you ask — is currently one of the best-selling imported liqueur in the U.S. But massive success is not without pitfalls, and these days the spirit with the party reputation is facing a new challenge: How does a liquor best known for getting underage guys with fake IDs wasted keep thriving in an increasingly artisanal world?
In case you have managed to come of age and avoid your requisite introduction, a primer: Jägermeister is a German bitter (technically, a half-bitter), known for a complicated roster of ingredients (56) and an unmistakably strong flavor. Its masculine square green bottle was legendarily designed not to break; the logo, inspired by the story of Hubert, patron Saint of Hunters, is a stag with a glowing cross hovering between its impressive antlers. It has been around since 1934, and the secret recipe — which does not contain elk’s blood but does contain cardamom, ginger, and star anise — has not changed in that time.
If your only associations with the drink are very fuzzy memories of college, though, you wouldn’t be alone. The Jägerbomb — a Red Bull/Jägermeister upper/downer cocktail — is a pre-party staple, known for getting you energized and also for getting you drunk. ("Their energy seemed to really pick up after consuming these Jägerbombs and they danced and laughed for a while,” notes one scholar.) The liqueur is also enthusiastically documented on UrbanDictionary, which points out that "it will make you do things most liquor won’t."
But to write off Jägermeister as a drink exclusively for partying 20-somethings would be a mistake. For one thing, it wouldn't be historically accurate. That the stuff ever managed to get a party rap in the first place would shock the crowd of after-dinner sippers Marcus Thieme, Jägermeister's Regional Director North America, calls the "traditional generation" — the 50-to-99-year-olds ("I’m not sure how old the oldest German is") who consume it as a digestive.
The official origin story goes like this: in 1934, Curt Mast was working with his father’s struggling wine and vinegar business in Wolfenbüttel when he concocted a new version of the traditional herbal liqueurs that have been used medicinally for ages. He called it "Jägermeister" — "master hunter" — and, according to brand lore, intended it to be "a toast with which every hunt would begin and end."
Nestled in Lower Saxony, Wolfenbüttel is known for many things: gentle hills, centuries of arts and culture, and — in the early 30s — being a popular hunting spot for senior party members. Which leads to the other, more muddled part of Jäger's early history. The same year that Mast mastered Jäger, Hermann Göring, interior minister of the newly-powerful Nazi party and Hitler's eventual second-in-command, enacted a new set of hunting laws and created regional jägermeisters to oversee them. Göring gave himself the title of Reichsjägermeister — the Imperial master of the hunt — and he and the lesser jägermeisters would meet for extravagant parties in Wolfenbüttel. Mast seized the opportunity. While the details of his own political involvement are somewhat murky, it is safe to say that Jägermeister was not named by accident. (Mast, for his part, managed to distance himself from his Nazi affiliations, and after the war, was ultimately excused by the British.)
In post-war Germany, Jäger eventually assumed its place as what the Wall Street Journal once called a "sleepy little brand," something you'd drink as much for medicinal reasons as for taste-related ones. Under the direction of Mast's nephew, Günter, Jäger began successfully experimenting with sports team sponsorships in the 1970s. But the reason you've ever even heard of herbal elixir has very little to do soccer, and everything to do with liquor importer Sidney Frank.
Frank had just gone out on his own and was looking for something to import when he first tasted Jägermeister in 1972 in New York. "I was looking for anything that had a niche," he told Inc. magazine, and he had a hunch Jäger did ("there were a lot of Germans around the country"). A year later, Frank was introducing it stateside. While it sold, it was not an immediate hit.
Things started to go in a different direction in 1985 after an article came out in the Baton Rouge Advocate about the brand's hyper-popularity among Louisiana college drinkers. It tasted "like a mixture of root beer and Vicks Formula 44D cough syrup, the piece said, but also it was "Liquid Valium." There were rumors it contained opium, that it was an aphrodisiac. It does not contain opium — at 70-proof, it is not even particularly high-alcohol — but Frank turned the rumors into a viral marketing campaign, distributing thousands of photocopies of the article at New Orleans bars. Sales skyrocketed. Soon after, he introduced the Jägerettes, who posed a solution to one of Jägermeister's primary challenges. Q: How do you introduce people to a weird new drink with a weird name? A: Attractive women in minimal clothing shooting liquor into men's mouths with a spray gun. To increase Jägermeister’s visibility bar, he came up with a tap machine, which kept the spirit ice-cold (an ideal pour is below zero) without hiding it away in a freezer. That neither strategy seems particularly innovative today is only testament to their success.
And then there is the incredible power of Jäger's novelty. It is not-vodka and not-whiskey and not-rum. "Nothing like this, nothing like this taste, nothing like this brand, was there before," Thieme says. The flavor profile is "very difficult to describe," but that's actually worked in the brand's favor: Here’s a weird thing, I can’t explain it, you just have to try.
Still, drinkers don’t stay 21 forever, and these days, Jägermeister is anxious to expand its American reach beyond the young and the drunk. Despite our growing national interest in bitters, Jäger’s U.S. sales numbers are down 5.6 percent due to "extremely aggressive pricing by competitors and changing consumer trends." Fireball, a direct whiskey competitor, is closing in on the spicy shot market — according to Fortune, the newer and cheaper liquor significantly outsold Jäger in 2014, $131 million to $81 million, though those numbers don’t take bar and restaurant sales into account.
Which brings Jägermeister to their current mission: appeal to our collective desire for craftsmanship. The new Jäger is still Jäger, but it's heritage Jäger now. Because the next market for Jägermeister? People who wouldn’t be caught dead ordering Jägermeister. Jäger is reintroducing the drink to a craft-beer drinking crowd, emphasizing the 56 ingredients, the 80-year-old recipe, the year-long aging process, and the 383 individual quality checks per batch. It's is still about having "a fantastic night with your friends," but the boundaries of that night expanded — it’s not just for what Thieme calls "the high-energy moment" anymore, though it is remains good for that, too. Sip it as a digestif, old-school. Try it, Thieme suggests, "On a great barbecue with some friends." And if you're not ready to take it straight, consider re-acquaintance via cocktail.
The Inside Scoop, from Erin Sullivan of The Third Man
- spray of yellow chartreuse
- 2 oz Jägermeister
- 4 oz root beer
- scoop of vanilla ice-cream
- 3 dashes root beer bitters
- orange oil
Spray rocks glass with chartreuse. Add chilled Jägermeister and root beer. Add scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Dash ice cream with root beer bitters. Express and discard orange twist.