Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy has a competitor nipping at its heels.

For decades, the coffee-flavored liquor has far outsold other hard alcohol in the Pine Tree State, and Maine accounts for virtually all of Allen’s sales nationwide. Maine drinkers purchase so much coffee brandy that the Allen’s website claims it is “an almost cultural rite of passage – a beverage shared by generations of Mainers.”

The grip Allen’s has on Maine is still undisputed, but nationally popular brands are encroaching on its territory. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is one competitor, but the biggest challenger is the spicy-sweet party beverage Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, whose total sales came close to Allen’s last year.

At Dock Fore, a low-key watering hole on Fore Street in Portland, a Fireball dispenser holds a prominent place behind the bar. Stocked with two upside-down bottles of the bright amber booze, the machine keeps Fireball cold and easy to pour from a tap into disposable shot glasses stacked nearby. Owner Shaun McCarthy said the spirit has become his No. 1 shooter, overtaking Jägermeister, a previous favorite.

“The younger kids, it reminds them of the Atomic hot balls candy,” he said. “People like it because it goes down so easy. The sweetness and the taste of Fireball hide the liquor, you don’t even know you are drinking it.”

It only takes a quick scan of roadside litter to confirm Fireball’s ubiquity and growing popularity in Maine – discarded empty miniature bottles known as “nips” became such a nuisance that lawmakers tacked a 5-cent deposit on them last year to discourage littering. Mainers spent $4.7 million on Fireball nips last year, more than half of the total sales of the brand.

At Bootleggers Beverage Warehouse and Redemption in Topsham, a plastic jar full of Fireball nips sits behind the cash register so employees can grab bottles quickly. The store sells so many Fireball mini-bottles they don’t bother to put them in the display case with the other nips, said spirits manager Carl Baade.

“Back when Fireball first started, it was like ‘it tastes like a Big Red cinnamon gum.’ It was a good shooter, we brought it to every party,” Baade said.

“The price helped a lot; 99 cents for a nip was as good as it gets,” he said. “I don’t know what the fascination with Fireball is, but it’s what everybody started drinking.”

ALLEN’S ‘REALLY ONLY POPULAR IN MAINE’

Maine has a long relationship with Allen’s, as evidenced by the sheer volume of sales, especially of 1.75 liter – or half-gallon – bottles.

“Long before I got here, Allen’s has been No. 1, and the 1.75 liter has been the No. 1 code,” said Gregory Mineo, director of the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, referencing the product bar code that tracks sales.

“It is really only popular in Maine, nowhere else,” he added. “It has really been part of the alcoholic beverage culture in Maine for a long time; it is a very interesting product.”

M.S. Walker, the Somerville, Massachusetts-based company that manufactures Allen’s, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Maine is one of 16 states where a state authority controls the sales of distilled spirits, effectively managing a monopoly on prices and agency liquor stores.

Allen’s sold $10.1 million worth of coffee brandy in Maine last year, roughly 6 percent of total hard alcohol sales statewide. While it holds a commanding presence, Allen’s sales have fallen $875,668 from 2014. In the same four years, sales of Fireball increased $6.4 million and Tito’s vodka jumped almost $5.5 million.

Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, like these half-gallons at Bootleggers Beverage Warehouse in Topsham has long been the best-selling liquor in Maine, but in 2017, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky almost matched it in total sales. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

In 2017, Fireball was the second-highest-selling spirit, with about $8.4 million in sales. Tito’s, with $6.5 million, came in third.

Mineo suspects declining Allen’s sales may be a long-term trend and reflect changing tastes in the state.

“Over the past several years Allen’s sales have been slipping,” Mineo said. “The rise of Fireball and the preponderance of other types of cordials, brandies – I think that is a big part of it.

“I think a lot of Maine consumers have stepped up their game and are into more of a cocktail-type culture; maybe they are moving off Allen’s.”

NIPS PRICED ‘ADVANTAGEOUSLY’

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky nips racked up sales of $4.7 million in Maine last year. Staff Photo by Gregory Rec

Part of Fireball’s explosive popularity was because of a pricing imbalance on nips. Until October, nips were only 99 cents, making it cheaper by volume than other sizes of bottles. The state raised nearly all nips prices to $1.49 last year to address the imbalance, Mineo said. The period of cheap prices had an outsize effect on sales, however. In 2013, there were only $150,422 worth of Fireball nips sales. Four years later, the state sold $4.7 million worth of the miniature, 50 milliliter bottles. Meanwhile, sales of 750 milliliter Fireball bottles remained stable, at around $1 million per year.

The price increase might dampen nips sales, but Mineo doubts it will dull Mainers’ taste for cinnamon-flavored shooters.

“There has been strong organic growth on Fireball,” Mineo said. “This would not have been happening with another product, there is no doubt about it. We felt that the consumer would probably keep buying Fireball, just a larger size.”

The Sazerac Co., which owns Fireball, does not release sales figures. In an email, Public Relations Manager Amy Preske said Fireball sales growth slowed by 68 percent in Maine following the price increase, but that the brand was popular in all sizes.

In December, Sazerac announced a $1 million expansion and up to 30 new jobs at its bottling plant in Lewiston, which packages Fireball among other brands.

“We obviously cannot predict the future, but considering that Fireball has been growing and popular for more than 15 years, it has already had long-term popularity and with the growth we are enjoying around the world we see no signs of slowing down,” Preske said.

PREDICTING SALES: ‘TOO SOON TO TELL’

Allen’s is still a guaranteed seller at many liquor outlets, where coffee brandy often takes up more shelf space than any other kind of spirit.

It was a surprise, therefore, when Tito’s surpassed Allen’s sales last year at the Topsham Bootleggers, said Baade, the spirits manager. Tito’s low prices drew in customers who would have purchased a different vodka brand, he guessed.

Among the best-selling liquor brands in Maine, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, right – helped by frequently discounted prices – came in third last year with overall sales of $6.5 million. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

“Tito’s was aggressive with sales; it was $5 off in the middle of the summer,” when other companies didn’t have a sale price, Baade said. Even during the January doldrums, when sales are typically slow, his store is still selling a lot of Tito’s.

“It feels like sales have not slowed down; it will be even bigger this year,” Baade said.

Other liquor stores declined interview requests, including Hannaford supermarkets, which owns 68 agency liquor stores in Maine.

Fireball nips have been a No. 1 seller at Roopers Beverages on Sabattus Street in Lewiston, but its 750 milliliter bottle has also outsold Allen’s, said store manager Nikki Hernandez.

“Other than that, Allen’s is pretty much above everything else,” she said. This past month, Tito’s was selling well, but a lot has to do with sale prices instead of a real shift in demand, Hernandez added.

“It is a little too soon to tell,” she said. “Allen’s drinkers are going to stick to Allen’s.”