Spirits: The Secret to Jagermeister? It's a Fiery Concoction Worth Savoring.
I was in college, in the early 1990s, when drinking shots of Jagermeister was in the early stages of popularity. You'd go into your local bar, and a bevy of "Jagerettes" in hot pants and tank tops would be pouring this weird brown liqueur with a fierce herbal-cinnamon-licorice kick. It came in rectangular green bottles bearing an almost biblical image of a cross shining over an elk's horns. It was like nothing else we had ever been served.
Rumors quickly spread about the obscure German booze with secret ingredients. Some said it contained elk's blood. Others said that what we were getting in America was a watered-down version of the original. As rumor had it, the real stuff -- available only in Germany -- contained special herbs (maybe opiates?) that gave it an even more special kick.
When my friend Sara and I were backpacking in Europe one summer -- in our Grateful Dead T-shirts and Birkenstocks -- the first thing we did upon arriving in Germany was to buy a bottle of Jagermeister. We sat on the bunk in the hostel, took sips from the bottle and looked at each other. "Do you think it's different?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. " I think so. I think I feel different."
"Yeah," I said. "I think I feel different, too."
Ah, the naivete of youth! The rumors, alas, were completely unfounded. But the continued popularity of Jagermeister is undeniable. More than 2.8 million cases were sold in the United States last year, and more than 6 million cases sold worldwide. Jagermeister is the best-selling liqueur domestically, according to industry analyst Beverage Information Group.
Yet because of its viral popularity, and also because Jagermeister is most commonly consumed in shots by young people, the liqueur has a mixed reputation among the spirits cognoscenti. There's its association with heavy-metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer; its mingling with Red Bull in the infamous Jager Bomb; the big, branded tap machines that bring chilled shots to the masses: Whatever the reason, Jagermeister is rarely discussed in serious spirits and cocktail circles.
In the first edition of his ratings compendium, "Kindred Spirits" (1997), renowned critic F. Paul Pacult gave Jagermeister three out of five stars and said its herbal quality "is so profound that it's like walking into a Chinese herbalists' shop." He offered this summation: "a charming and quaffable shooter; but that's about it." Curiously, in Pacult's second edition, in 2008, Jagermeister is not even reviewed.
"We are not an over-sophisticated drink," says Dietmar Franke, Jagermeister's business development director for the United States. "It's an easy, uncomplicated product. Just make sure it's ice cold, and have a group of friends with you." In case buyers are unclear about the ice cold part, it says "Serve Cold -- Keep on Ice" in big, bold letters right on the label.
I've remained a fan of Jagermeister, though these days I rarely find myself in a situation that calls for shots of it. Which makes sense, since Franke says the prime demographic is drinkers ages 21 to 31, "the age bracket when you are out every evening."
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tour the inner sanctum of the Jagermeister plant in Wolfenbuttel, Germany, a cozy town about an hour from Hanover (meaning it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere). At the corporate headquarters, you are met by a rug that says, in bright orange, "Achtung WILD!"
One of the most interesting things I learned during my tour is that Jagermeister is produced by macerating (rather than distilling) its ingredients of herbs, spices, roots and fruit in pure, neutral spirits, then aging for a year in huge 10,000-liter oak barrels. Liquid sugar is added late in the process. "We are a liqueur, after all," says Peter Höfler, the director of administration. "In some countries they call us a bitter or an amaro, but we are not a real bitter."
I was thrilled to visit the herb room, which shed some light on the 56-ingredient secret recipe. There I saw a display that named each of the 56 ingredients. I began copying the list in my notebook. As I did, I could tell that the public relations people were becoming agitated, and one disappeared from the room. She reappeared later and handed me a sheet of paper listing the five herbs that were "officially" disclosed to me: cloves, ginger root, camomile flowers, cinnamon bark, saffron.
Well, I'm not usually one to stick to "official" lists, and so -- much to the certain dismay of my German handlers -- I will also tell you that there may or may not be licorice root, lavender and rose hips, as well as many of the herbs and spices usually found in bitters. Of course, just knowing those ingredients, but not the amount and preparation of them, doesn't make it likely that you or I can re-create Jagermeister at home. I can also report that there are no opiates or elk's blood in the recipe.
For most of its 131-year history in Germany, Jagermeister had been an after-dinner digestif. I've always been fascinated by how Americans have turned that tradition on its head by making it a shooter. By now, we've exported the idea back to Germany, and you'll see young Germans sucking down Jager shots. Jagermeister, in my opinion, is still best enjoyed straight and not as a cocktail mixer. However, in Wolfenbuttel, I much enjoyed a few Jagermeister and tonics with a slice of orange and would wholeheartedly recommend that drink.
Still, because Jagermeister sales chiefly rely on shot consumption by young drinkers, it presents the company with a tricky marketing situation, one in which "responsibility" is the buzzword.
"To promote shots is not to promote overconsumption," said Alexandra von Tschirschky, head of public affairs. "Maybe just have one or two shots."
"Well," said Franke, with a laugh, "maybe three."