There’s a game that Jesse Bowen, who runs the Occidental bar in Denver, likes to play.
Here’s how it goes: “I put six shots of amaro on the bar.” Amaro is an Italian liqueur which, with its bittersweet, herbaceous flavors, is really having a moment.
Next: He has a customer try each one, telling them about the notes of cloves or anise or mint.
Finally: Bowen reveals that one of the shots isn’t actually an amaro. It’s Jägermeister, the mid-nineties party staple that we all thought we’d aged out of.
But what if, instead of aging out of Jägermeister, we’re actually just now growing into it? That’s the hope of Germany’s Mast family, who have owned Jägermeister since its inception in 1934. The company is embarking on a major rebranding effort, trying to shake Jäger’s frat-kid image. The question is: Will it work?
The interesting thing about Jägermeister is that slamming it in bombs is purely an American invention. In Germany, Jägermeister has a totally different reputation. How do I know this? Well, as a 17-year-old exchange student in Germany, I remember being stoked to do so many Jäger bombs. But the teens we met were confused when we asked in fractured German: Wo sind die Jägermeister Schüsse? (Translation: Where are the Jägermeister shots?)
“Up until six or seven years ago, in Germany, Jägermeister had this generational issue,” says Willy Shine, the company’s U.S. brand manager (or brand meister, as Jäger calls it). “Young Germans thought, This is what our grandparents and parents drank.” He adds that young people abroad are starting to embrace Jägermeister but, apparently, as a teen, I was essentially asking my German friends to sit down with their grandparents for an after-dinner drink. Great.
Originally crafted for sipping after the hunt and harvest, Jägermeister literally translates to “hunt master.” Distilled with 56 ingredients (the full recipe is a secret), it’s dark, bitter, herbaceous, and just a touch sweet. It got its hold-my-hair-back reputation in the States thanks to creative marketing. “When it first came to the U.S. in the 1980s, the flavor profile, no one understood what to do with it,” says Shine. Stymied, the company hired “Jägerettes” to pass out ice-cold shots at college bars and in spring-break locales. Shine says they didn’t purposely introduce the Jäger bomb, but they didn’t fight it either. “We’re not mad about it,” he says. The company sold a lot of Jäger in bomb format.
But Gen Z isn’t drinking as heavily as previous generations, and millennials are getting a little old for the shots! shots! shots! shtick. So Jägermeister is rebranding and hoping that millennials and Gen Xers forget that Jäger was responsible for the nights they, well, forgot.
Rebranding is a tricky venture. Just look at New Coke, or Radio Shack’s attempt to become “The Shack.” More recently, Arby’s tried to make itself out as a fresh-food restaurant, which, well—it’s Arby’s. The positive examples, like PBR becoming the drink of choice for hipsters in the 2010s, and Old Spice getting cool after a series of viral ads, are tantalizing. If you get it just right, it’s a cash windfall.
Jägermeister is recruiting bartenders to help. This is smart, not only because bartenders influence what patrons order, but because bartenders loved amaros—Jägermeister is basically a German version of an amaro—before the rest of us even knew what they were. “We tend to like flavors like that,” says Brian Prugalidad, a bartender at San Diego’s Campfire.
Jäger made an even smarter move when it created Hubertus Circle, an invite-only club for master mixologists. It’s been active overseas since 2011, but now the brand is inviting American bartenders into the guild. “It’s an honor to be asked,” says Prugalidad, adding that the regular meetings with his city’s best bartenders have become a looked-forward-to event. Members of Hubertus Circle are not paid, but Prugalidad says he doesn’t need bribing to spread the good word about Jäger. “It’s a great product. I couldn’t recommend something I didn’t love,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jägermeister just released an oak-aged, top-shelf version called Manifest.
Still, getting people to retry something they may have overindulged in in the past may be tough. Bowen has had patrons send back a cocktail when they found out it was made with Jägermeister. “But I’ve also had them order several more,” he adds. “It’s a perception thing,” he says, referring to his amaro shot game. “When no one knew what it was, no one batted an eye.”