I Finally Found the Words to Describe Jägermeister
People do not want to change who they are, and they do not want to change what they drink. The trick, as any good therapist, bartender, or bartender/therapist will tell you, is to lead them to an epiphany while making it seem as if they came across it on their own. I thought about the implications of this for my own sanity, which had been a little tenuous of late, and the biases we have against certain types of alcohol while bartender Glenn Estrada of Tür 7 in Vienna, Austria, mixed me a series of cocktails.
Tür 7, a living-room style bar with house shoes spread out for guests at the door, takes the idea of confounding expectations seriously. With no menu, servers are encouraged to talk to guests, to find out what they like without prima facie biasing them against it. “If you know before what’s in the drink, you taste it differently,” Estrada said. “You focus on the spirit.” He told a story about a guest who explained to him that she wanted something like a Cosmo, but that she had two rules: no tequila and no Jägermeister. The resulting recipe actually incorporated both, with raspberry and cranberry juices, which was either a cruel act of bartender trolling or a canny way to open someone’s eyes. She loved it.
“You can mix everything together as long as you find a link. You can make drinks with fish sauce, mustard, or ketchup.”
“You can mix everything together as long as you find a link,” Estrada said. “You can make drinks with fish sauce, mustard, or ketchup,” which he went on to do, both of which were…not bad! Savory and acidic, bitter but approachable. “But if you put that on a menu, people would be like, ‘Nope! I’m getting a piña colada.’”
I had been stuck in a few ruts myself at home lately, both of the drinking variety and otherwise, and I had been hoping to run away from them for a few days. As fortune would favor it, there was a wealthy liquor company that wanted to change my perspective on its brand by bringing me to Europe to drown in it.
Jägermeister has a unique problem. The herbal digestif, first distilled in 1934 by Curt Mast, the son of a German vinegar maker, has been a regular part of the liquor landscape in America for years. In the 1980s, when college students in Louisiana started drinking it as a goof, importing titan Sidney Frank seized upon this curious case of serendipity with a marketing campaign designed to make the stuff synonymous with partying. It remains one of the most recognizable names in drinking. It is also among the most popular liqueurs sold around the world. And yet, something’s off.
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For all its history, for all its staying power, the experience most of us have with Jägermeister, the shot that puts the Deutsche into the douche, is an ephemeral one. It has a hard-partying reputation it cannot shake. It is handed to you at a bar, its exact origins often unclear, and then it disappears, forgotten. It is not something you plan for. It is not something you savor. It is something that happens to you and that you endure. And true to form, Jägermeister is featured in no shortage of the worst cocktails known to man: the Jägerbomb, the Surfer on Acid, Liquid Cocaine. But it needn’t be, the company wanted to show us. They wanted to convince us they know exactly who they are, which is more than what they seem. And they were right! You can make a fine cocktail with Jägermeister. You can make a fine cocktail with anything, you just have to find the right balance.
I had a couple of fine Jägermeister cocktails on the rooftop bar of the circus-themed boutique hotel 25hours Vienna, which was dotted with retro pommel horses and medicine balls. “We are all mad here,” signs on the facade outside and the walls throughout reminded us. I sipped a simple Jäger and tonic, then a Jäger Bloody. And then I had a few more at the city’s best cocktail bar, the Sign Lounge, where the bar staff presented a series of elaborately architected tiki cocktails that utilized dark rums, anise, and gin to highlight and play against the botanicals of the Jägermeister. With so many ingredients—citrus peel, anise, poppies, saffron, and ginseng, to name a few—the flavor palate to choose from when coloring around Jäger’s edges is as broad as the imagination. No matter what you mix with Jägermeister, however, you’re still drinking Jägermeister, and that is something you’re going to have to teach yourself to get used to.
Spend any time hanging out with bartenders, and you’ll soon discover what their shot of choice is. Maybe it’s Fernet Branca, the sharply bitter and bracing Italian digestif. Perhaps they’ve moved onto alpine styles, like Braulio, slightly smokier and pine-forward, or the citrusy, lightly bittersweet Montenegro. Years ago, that honor was held by Jägermeister. I remember bar posters from around the turn of the millennium showcasing its appeal—a German caricature twisting his face as he took a sip and ironically boasting of its smooth flavor. Like any specialized field, the mark of expertise is often advertised by one’s affinity to the aspects of the trade with a higher barrier for entry. Bartenders drink stuff that tastes like burnt ass, just like cineastes love impenetrable films, and music aficionados take to lengthy and discursive music. That’s the trick when it comes to amari. Try any liqueur enough times, and it evens out. It becomes familiar. You meld it into your drinking identity.
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With so many ingredients, the flavor palate to choose from when coloring around Jäger’s edges is as broad as the imagination.
“Why do you like Fernet?” Nils Boese, the global brand ambassador for Jägermeister, asked us a few days later in Berlin at Restaurant Schneeweiß, a refined, delicate, all-white Alpine cuisine restaurant, after a dinner of goulash and spätzle. Because someone told us to, he said.
He then walked us through a series of Jäger tastings, trying to tease out the ingredients of the spirit; juniper berries, saffron, caramel, cinnamon. It’s easy to goof on wine snobs and cocktail nerds who pontificate about what they’re tasting as if declaiming difficult poetry, but to drink anything consciously is to begin to recognize what it is you are experiencing. To name things is to know them better.
“Taste only happens when you find a word for it,” Boese said. Otherwise, “it’s like driving around lost without any street signs.” He continued, “If you don’t find words for it, it never happened.”
By describing something, you begin to see it for what it is. It reveals itself to you. That’s true whether it is an unfamiliar city, a style of spirit, or something as seemingly impenetrable as your own personality. You just have to do the work. Maybe you’ll like what you learn, or what you taste. Then again, maybe you won’t. I have the words to describe what I tasted, why I liked it. I’ll need a few more words to figure out how I feel.