March Madness is soon upon us. No, I’m not talking about basketball. I’m referring to the Irish Catholic holiday turned binge-drinking free-for-all, when everyone claims to have connections to the Emerald Isle.
So what do celebrants drink on St. Patrick’s Day? Guinness is a favorite. People who never touch the stuff any other day of the year pound it on March 17. Other Irish beers, like Harp and Smithwick’s are also high on the list. Serious imbibers will hit the hard stuff — Irish whiskey, such as Jameson, Clontarf and Bushmills. There is also a wildly popular liqueur: sweet and velvety Irish cream.
But what exactly is Irish cream? What is it made of and where did it come from?
While many Irish adult beverages have long and storied histories, Irish cream is a newcomer. The first commercially produced Irish cream, Baileys, was introduced to the market in 1974. It was invented by the Gilbeys of Ireland company, which was looking for a product to export to an international market.
The name Baileys, according to Business Week, was thought up by a corporate executive for a liquor conglomerate, whose office happened to have a view of the Bailey’s hotel in London. The logic was that the name sounded Irish — but not too Irish. The signature on the bottle, R.A. Bailey, is as authentic as the million people who attended Trump’s inauguration.
Designed to appeal to women and to those turned off by heavier spirits, the new product became a smashing worldwide success. It was the first cream liqueur, launching a whole new category of spirits.
It quickly spawned a horde of copycats, with Carolan’s, the second most popular brand, being introduced in 1979. Carolan’s, however, is named after a real person, Turlough O’Carolan, a celebrated 17th-century harpist and legendary traveling musician. Another brand, among many, is Brady’s, with a name and bottle awfully similar to the original.
In its most basic form, Irish cream is a mixture of fresh cream and Irish whiskey with added flavors. Baileys contains vanilla and cocoa beans while Carolans claims its rich taste comes from honey. The main ingredients are truly Irish. The top brands are made in Ireland from Irish whiskey and cream from Irish dairy farms. Its popularity has been a boon to the country’s dairy industry.
There is one aspect that defies logic. Cream is a perishable product; it must be refrigerated and consumed within a certain time. However, this is not the case with “Irish” cream. Another challenge was to get the cream and the whiskey to combine without separating. According to Baileys, it took three years of trials and experimentation to perfect this process. The company claims that, with or without refrigeration, a bottle of Baileys will retain its flavor for two years (as long as it is not exposed to direct sunlight or temperatures above 77 degrees), the reason being that the alcohol in the whiskey preserves the cream.
Irish cream is often enjoyed in its most pure form over the rocks. An overwhelming number of people enjoy it with coffee — so many that the authentic Irish coffee recipe is thought to contain Baileys (it doesn’t). It’s popular over ice cream and has spawned an abundance of heavy dessert-like tipples.
It has also evolved into a common confectionary flavor. On the flip side, other sweet flavors have been combined with the spirit to create several candy-like varieties, such as mint, salted caramel and orange truffle.
I first sampled Irish cream as a young adult before my pallet matured; it offers a sweet and smooth flavor that is easy on the taste buds. As my tastes evolved, I have come to abhor sweet drinks, but I will still admit to enjoying a shot in a cup of robust black coffee.
In my opinion, the best way to imbibe it is by adding more of the ingredient that makes it great: Irish whiskey. I enjoy a 50/50 mixture. The subtle vanilla sweetness in the whiskey blends well with the cream, while cutting through the almost milkshake-like texture. The first time I tried this mixture, it was forged with Bushmills whiskey, hence the name “Creamy Bush,” but you can use your favorite Irish whiskey.
2 oz. Irish whiskey
2 oz. Irish cream
Shake until well combined and serve over ice. Sip and savor.