Monday, February 14, 2011

Potable Pariahs: Jägermeister


What can be said about Jägermeister that hasn't already been said? To say it's a product with a reputation is a colossal understatement. Love it or hate it, the name "Jägermeister" definitely elicits a reaction. For those who have tried it, Jägermeister has likely become either a beloved denizen of their liquor cabinet (or freezer), or a much- loathed concoction akin to poison. For those who haven't had it, its stigma precedes it, and very few people try it for the first time without having first been exposed to a litany of horror stories. Regardless, it's probably second only to Tequila for prompting regrettable decisions.

I could go on at length about attractive young women in blaze-orange wigs and sparse outfits dispensing vials of the stuff at nightclubs and festivals. I could explore the phenomenon of how it became the de facto beverage in certain precincts of the heavy metal music scene. I could clumsily profile its loyal customers. But if you've been anywhere alcohol has been served over the last 20 years or so, you've seen Jägermeister, you've seen how it's marketed, and you've seen who's buying it. You've probably tried it too. I make no judgments.

Among the cocktailing crowd, Jägermeister is largely sneered at, hence my deeming it a Potable Pariah. Booze nerds usually pass it by in favor of similar products like Fernet Branca, Averna and Unicum, which are seen as more distinguished examples of the category. Whether it's contempt for the nature of its marketing, disdain for the type of person who typically consumes it, or simply the taste of the product itself, Jägermeister is a tough sell for discriminating drinkers.

Now before we delve into the nuts & bolts, I need to come clean about a family connection to Jägermeister, as well as my personal feelings about the product itself. (I believe legal-type folks call this "full disclosure" or something. If you want to skip the human-interest stuff, then just jump over the next three paragraphs).

Jägermeister was (and is) made in a town in Germany named Wolfenbüttel. This also happens to be the very same town where my father spent the early years of his life before emigrating to the US with his mother. I mention my grandmother because she was no doubt was well aware of the town's best-known export, since she kept a bottle of it in her kitchen at all times. No, my grandmother wasn't doing shots while cranking Motörhead...she used it for its original purpose as a digestive aid (see "What is it?" below). We have Pepto-Bismol, my grandmother had Jäger.

Not that she would have backed down from a line of shot glasses if need be. My grandmother was, as they used to say, a tough old broad. She had a husband killed in WWII, leaving her a single mother who had to leave her home and start over again in a foreign country. She pulled it off, and managed to both raise her son to adulthood and live into her eighties despite eating every single thing you weren't supposed to. My memory of her is that of a robust, coarsely elegant woman who loved children, smoked cigarettes with an old-fashioned filter, and could bake to rival any pastry chef. She could also crack walnuts open with one bare hand. In her later years she resembled an oil drum topped by a head of curly, steel-colored hair that she cut herself, but this did nothing to diminish her dignified aura. She took crap from no one, yet was terrifically generous. Imagine Yoda with Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent, and you have a pretty good picture.

So if your conception of the typical Jäger consumer is a fraternity basement dweller or a tattooed hairfarmer at Ozzfest, take a moment to consider that long before those guys discovered it, an elderly German lady had it within arm's reach right next to the sugar and coffee. I think of her every time I have some, and always offer up a silent toast.

Then there's the product itself. I happen to actually like Jägermeister. I say "like" not in the sense that I enjoy downing a bunch of it in record time because it gets me nice and hammered. I mean I like the way it tastes, and I sometimes pour myself a nice cold glass of it and slowly sip away while doing a crossword puzzle or reading a book. That, of course, isn't the scenario the Jägermeister marketing team is going to base their next promotion around, but that's okay with me. They've done fine so far by swaddling race cars and women's breasts with their logo, so they clearly don't need to switch up their strategy anytime soon...Jägermeister is, if nothing else, a marketing masterpiece. Billed first and foremost as a party fuel par excellence, it can nonetheless be enjoyed by people who don't start their day with a Red Bull IV drip and a naked snowboard run.

Now that that's all out of the way, let's get to it.

What is it?

Jägermeister is a herbal liqueur that falls in the of subcategory of bitters. This means that is it is ideally intended to be consumed as a digestif. It's a nearly-opaque, auburn-tinged brown color, and comes in a squat, short-necked green glass bottle. It has a sweet, licorice-forward flavor that many people find unpleasant, and some compare unfavorably to cough medicine (particularly if not chilled). The proprietary recipe developed in 1934 contains a combination of several herbs, roots, barks, fruits and spices. It is 70 proof.

Why does it suck?

As I mentioned above, there are a number of reasons folks are leery of Jägermeister. A lot of people just plain hate the way it tastes. Cocktail geeks in particular tend to look upon it with derision, generally favoring other similar products in the amari family, which can be more conducive to mixing. In this sense, despite being relatively sweet for bitters, Jägermeister has an aggressive flavor profile that makes it challenging as a cocktail ingredient.

How can we fix it?

I was initially inclined to treat Jägermeister like some willful, savage beast that needs to be domesticated before inclusion into the civilized milieu of a cocktail. I'd considered a number of methods, like employing only tiny amounts (using it as a rinse, gently placing a few drops on the surface of the drink), or altering it in some way (making a syrup out of it, doing a reduction). But then I realized the fundamental flaw in my approach: I was trying to fix something that didn't need to be fixed.

Instead of trying to subjugate it, I needed to celebrate it. I was trying to make it yield, and thereby become stripped of its Jäger-ness. It was at that point I understood that something as nobly brash as Jägermeister shouldn't be tamed. It's not supposed to be liked by everyone, and that's a cornerstone of its appeal. If you somehow made it palatable to nearly everybody, it would cease to be Jägermeister. And that's something I won't be party to.

So I revisited an off-the-cuff drink I made awhile back when that big scandal involving Sandra Bullock and then-husband Jesse James was the hot gossip item. I usually don't pay attention to celebrity tabloid stuff, but I got a huge kick out that one for one simple reason: It involved someone named Bombshell McGee.

As far as I'm concerned, "Bombshell McGee" is a phenomenal name. It's the name you'd give a cartoon character...someone like Yosemite Sam's brother-in-law. Say what you will about the woman herself, she's got a great name. It still brings a smile to my face when I think about it, just as it did back then when I made up a drink in her honor:

Bombshell McGee

1 oz. Sailor Jerry spiced rum
1 oz. Kahlua
.75 oz. Jägermeister
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Build in a rocks glass over ice and top with a splash of club soda. Stir and garnish with an orange twist.

My intent was to make something akin to a low-rent Negroni. I also wanted something that used ingredients almost any bar or club would have handy. My last goal was to make something that was tasty, but also a little rough around the edges...unpolished, but not unwelcome. And I think it's a recipe where Jägermeister is perfectly at home.

Which brings us to the question of Jägermeister's redemption. I maintain it needs no redeeming. Regardless of how you elect to consume it, you'll either embrace it or you won't...that's just how Jäger is. You don't have to like it, but please don't ask it to be anything other than what it is.