The Year of the Stag

Photo by Paul Padshewscky
Photo by Paul Padshewscky

The year was 2009, and yours truly, a bartender with five years of experience, was asked to run the bars for one of the largest parties in Dayton, OH. The craft cocktail boom was just gaining a big head of steam on the coasts. Cocktail only bars were still in their infancy on the coasts, and it would be a few years before they started moving inland. The welcome cocktail/shot was sponsored by Jägermeister that year, so I went to the internet to get some ideas on how to use this spirit. Until that point I knew it worked in two drinks: the Jägerbomb and the Red Headed Slut. I was looking for something a little different, something with some elegance, or a unique flavor profile, or something that would be impressive with which to start the evening. What I found was a large group of drinks that, by and large, made it seem the person serving it to you was not your friend. Drinks with names like Instant Death, Dead Nazi, or a 24 Karat Nightmare (also known as a Starry Night). None of them seemed like a good fit to start a night. That is when my experimentation with Jägermeister began. Seven years later, this venerable company is looking to be noticed by mixologists and bar tenders around the world as more than just a main component to a party shooter.

In Germany, Jägermeister has a very distinguished history. Before it was a Kräuterlikör (“herbal liquor”), it was a title for the forest rangers in late 19th century. The company Wilhelm Mast created was a wine and vinegar distributor to the region. His son, Curt Mast, had a different vision for what it could be. As an avid hunter, he wanted to create a liquor, through natural processes, that his hunting group could enjoy before and after a hunt. A toast for good luck and to respect the animals that were to be hunted. After years of experimentation, Jägermeister (“master hunter”) came into the world in 1934. To honor the hunting heritage from which the spirit was created, Mast looked to Christianity for an appropriately noble symbol for the bottle. Legend has it that Saint Hubertus, the patron saint of huntsmen and mathematicians, went for a hunt on Good Friday instead of heading to church. As he chased a stag through the woods, his prey turned on him. Between the antlers of the noble beast was a crucifix. It was a message that this life he had chosen was going to lead him astray. He quickly converted to the religion, hunting ethically and training others to do so. Mast’s high regard for the spirit he created did not end at the liquid. He wanted to make sure that, like a good hunter, his product could survive even the roughest treatment. After many experiments and broken bottles, he found the shape and glass that sits behind bars and in chilling machines today. It took many assurances that it would be replaced if it was broken, but I have seen it bounce off cement floors with no damage to it.

St. Hubertus in St.Patrick RC Basilica, Ottowa. Photo by Wojciech Dittwald
St. Hubertus in St.Patrick RC Basilica, Ottowa. Photo by Wojciech Dittwald

The quality and integrity that Curt Mast built into the spirit and the brand has stayed consistent as it grew to the number eight spirit brand in the world. Yes, a family owned herbal liqueur ranks that high in global sales. Even though it stands upon that lofty peak, the brand has not lost sight of where it came from. Their herbal specialist, Dr. Berndt Finke, combs the world for only the best herbs to add to the liqueur. He is one of the few people that know the full recipe of fifty-six herbs, roots, and blooms that are used for their unique recipe. He sends them to their headquarters in Wolfenbüttel to be added to the maceration process. It is not all put into one container. There are four separate tanks to create the macerates: one for the aromatics, one for the herbal flavors, one for the citrus flavors, and one for the bitter flavors. They then use water and alcohol to extract the flavor from all of the herbs. After the flavor has been extracted, they marry the four macerates into one spirit. Local German wood is used to create immense barrels where the spirit rests for over a year before it is put into the bottle. Unlike bourbon, they are not seeking to add flavor from the wood. They are allowing the four macerates to rest and blend into the well-known black spirit. After nearly four hundred quality checks and over a year being prepared and blended, a bottle of Jägermeister is ready to get parties started.

Sidney Frank, of the appropriately named Sidney Frank Importing Company, brought the liquor to the United States in 1974. According to Willy Shine, U.S. Brand Meister for the venerable brand, Frank brought the traditions of the liquor with him as part of the experience. And, as Americans, we all but ignored it. Sure, enjoyed shots, but this was the era of bad shots. The American palate did not want savory; it wanted sweet and easy drinking. As Mr. Shine explained, this is where Sidney Frank really started to earn his reputation as a “bold risk taker”. Knowing that we loved a gimmick, like copper mugs and funky glasses, as much as anything, he went to work trying to find one. He decided that since the traditional German way of drinking it as an aperitif or adding it to a warm cup of water was not going to work, the brand would go in in the opposite direction and chill it. By dropping the temperature, he was also removing the complexities of the liquor and encouraging bartenders to add it to other chilled shots. He brought in groups of young ladies, the Jagerettes, to help promote the brand in bars around the country. This two pronged promotional attack, as well as a timely article in the 1980s, shot the brand into the national, and eventually global, spotlight.

Courtesy Jägermeister
Courtesy Jägermeister

There were still some elements from Germany that stuck, and according to Mr. Shine, are going to stay a core part of the brand. Sharing a shot was a bonding ritual. Whether it was a more traditional fruited brandy or a round of Jagermeister Jell-O shots, having a quick nip before or at the end of an activity was a way to come together as a group. It is a mini-celebration, and there is no reason to abandon that aspect. Frank knew that while he was promoting. This new push into the craft cocktail has a different feel to it. Jägermeister is not trying to run from its past; it is trying to show that is had a sensitive side as well as a party side. That it can sit as easily in a well-balanced cocktail as it can balance on the edge of glass, ready to dive into some energy drink. Why does the brand have to choose? The Year of the Stag is about showing versatility, and warming up to the quality that is the cornerstone of the brand.

When was the last time you let your hunter green bottle hit room temperature? When you chill a liquid, you take all of the flavor and aromatics and trap them. There is a reason craft beer is better closer to room temperature and macro-produced beer is not. Wines are not best served chilled, but slightly cooler than room temperature. There are rich flavors that emerge from the dark depths of Jägermeister when you allow it to get to room temperature. Cinnamon, star anise, coffee, orange peel, ginger root and cardamom all start to rise to the top when you allow the liqueur to warm up. Ideas start to flow as to what you can pair it with and how it can enhance your cocktails. A Jägermeister daiquiri or Piña colada? Willy Shine suggests those as two fine places to start exploring. He also suggested that grapefruit was a fine pairing, and delivered this gem of a recipe:

Shine On

  • 1.5 oz./ 45 mL Jägermeister
  • 1.5 oz./ 45 mL Bourbon
  • .25 oz/ 7 mL Maple Syrup
  • 3 – 4 dashes Chocolate Bitters
  • Glass: Rocks
  • Garnish: Orange Twist (optional)
  • Ice: Large cube

Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass. Add ice, then stir for 20 – 30 seconds. Strain into the rocks glass over the ice cube. Express the orange peel over the cocktail, then add the peel to the cocktail.

Dirty Jäger, courtesy Jägermeister
Dirty Jäger, courtesy Jägermeister

In all fairness, Mr. Shine suggested equal parts bourbon and Jägermeister, some maple syrup and chocolate bitters. I added the rest of the details through experimentation. It is an amazing cocktail, very balanced as all the elements work together to enhance each other. Another cocktail that was suggested by Lauren Moore, a representative from Sidney Frank. She offered a variation on the Dirty Gin Martini:

Dirty Jäger

  • 2 barspoons of Jägermeister
  • 1.5 oz./ 45 mL Gin (Sipsmith was recommended)
  • .5 oz./ 15 mL Dolin Dry Vermouth
  • 2 strips of Lemon Zest
  • 2 barspoons of Olive Brine
  • Glass: Chilled Coupe
  • Garnish: Olive and Lemon Zest
  • Ice: None

Stir all the ingredients with one zest on ice in a mixing glass, strain into a cold coupe. Garnish with an olive and remaining lemon zest.

In the early part of 2015, Jägermeister employed the talents of Amor y Amargo's Sother Teague to start using their flavorful liqueur in more crafted cocktails. One of his cocktails, the Stag’s Leap, is a taller, simpler cocktail that allows the rich herbs in shine through.

Stag’s Leap

DSC_9680 courtesy of Jagermeister USA
DSC_9680 courtesy of Jagermeister USA
  • 1.5 oz./ 45 mL Jägermeister
  • 1.5 oz./ 45 mL Sweet Vermouth
  • 3 dashes Root Beer Bitters
  • Seltzer Water
  • Orange Peel
  • Glass: Highball
  • Garnish: Orange zest
  • Ice: Small cubes

Place three large ice cubes in the highball glass. Pour the Jägermeister, sweet vermouth, and bitters into the glass and stir. Pour the seltzer water down the bar spoon until the glass is full. Express the orange twist over the cocktail, then rub the peel on the inside of the glass to add more oils. Enjoy!

As a side note, if you do not have root beer bitters, root beer works very well. Sometimes during an experiment, you have to improvise. Just remove the seltzer all together and add root beer.

Jägermeister has declared 2016 the Year of the Stag. They are bringing the high quality, depth of flavor, and versatility of their spirit to bartenders already enamored with amaros and bitter liqueurs from other parts of Europe. A casual look through some of the top bar books of 2015 will reveal that nary a word is written about this impressive brand. Mast-Jägermeister SE and Sidney Frank want that to change. They want to see more cocktails going out with Jagermeister as the core ingredient like Campari, or as a part of a wider flavor profile like Chartreuse. You will still find it planted squarely on machines, chilling away in bars, waiting for a Surfer on Acid to be made. But they also want bartenders to follow the stag, as St. Hubertus had done, and be inspired to find a whole new calling for this liqueur.