In honor of St Patrick's Day, we hosted an exploratory tasting of three Irish Cream liqueurs: Baileys, Carolans, and the craft-distilled, award-winning upstart, Coole Swan. But before tasting, there were some very basic questions: What is Irish cream? Where did it come from? Why is it here?
The answer is basic as well: it seems one simply cannot get away from mother's milk. We're provided it as babies; we're nourished with it through childhood on cereal and in chocolate; we indulge in it as young adults in milk shakes and ice-cream; then we pour it in our coffee as we get older.
And then there are the cocktails.
Irish cream is a very recent addition to the world of spirits but the classic cocktail recipes all resound with cream: the Brandy Alexander uses cream and (obviously) brandy; the whiskey Alexander replaces the brandy for whiskey (with cream); the cowboy makes that whiskey an American rye whiskey (with cream); the Irish Eyes insists that the whiskey be an Irish whiskey (and cream); and, not to be left out, the Blue Icicle replaces the whiskey with tequila and adding a bit of blue curacao for color (with cream). Velvet Hammers, White Russians, and the Screaming Orgasms are just a very few of the scores of drinks featuring cream. Something about drinking in adulthood apparently makes one yearn for the elixirs of childhood.
The latter half of the 20th century involved a great deal of pre-packaging convenience. Beginning with the popularity of canned foods, whole meals were being prepared and stored with increasing enthusiasm. TV Dinners were the rage as people happily put complete, pre-fabricated meals in the oven. Pillsbury unleashed pre-made cookie dough and other pastries upon kitchens across America. Instant coffee began terrorizing the globe. It was only natural, then, that people began to look to pre-made cocktails in a bottle. Cream is a fine ingredient in a cocktail but rather inconvenient to have to store relative to vermouth or other ingredients-it spoils and, when it spoils, it stinks. This made the idea of putting a pre-made cream cocktail-where the alcohol would prevent spoiling-into a bottle highly desirable.
But woe upon us all! It was at that point where one realized that the earth-whose every physical law and property seemed to hang in perfect balance and harmony-was actually set in opposition to some of mankind's deepest motives: one could not properly store a cocktail involving cream!
As any chemist will tell you, oil and water tend to separate and this is true with cream and water as well. A well-shaken cocktail involving cream will, if you give it sufficient time, separate. This is not an issue at all if you intend to actually drink your cocktail within, say, the next four hours or so. (In fact, shame be upon you should you wait that long.) But that kind of separation in a bottle just wouldn't do.
Then, the miracle happened in Ireland. In 1974, a process involving homogenization (that is, shaking and pulverizing a cream until its fat globules become smaller and smaller to become one with the fluid around it) and pasteurization (the well-known process by which harmful microbes in dairy products are slain by heat and then sealed) resulted in creating the world's first stable cream cocktail. The company was Gilbert of Ireland. They infused some sweeteners, spices, blended Irish whiskey along with local dairy cream, and bottled the result as Baileys Irish Cream. Who is Bailey? No one. It was simply considered a fine marketing name. Notice the absence of a possessive apostrophe on the name "Baileys." We suppose that's because there's no person to actually do the possessing on that possessive apostrophe.
Whatever the marketing angle, the sales were stupendous. Beginning with a mere few 12 thousand cases in 1979 when it was released to the United States, Baileys soared in popularity. By 1981 it had grown to 600,000 cases. Today selling 6.7 million cases (according to the 2009 annual report from parent company Diageo). In 1982, Assistant Managing Director Keith MacCarthy-Morrogh was quoted in Time Magazine as Baileys perhaps being "too successful."
The international appetite is, and continues to be outstanding. Very few people today have not at least tasted Baileys Irish Cream at some point or other. It carries a sweet, milky, dessert-style taste with a kick of whiskey. It is said to be made from a consortium of 9,000 dairy farmers who own the "happiest cows on earth," who are said to be so cheerful because they're free-range and grass-fed. Baileys promises us today that their cream is no more than 2 hours old at the time the process of blending begins.
At our tasting, we found few people who didn't at least enjoy Irish cream in all of its settings. Comments such as, "I've always liked Baileys" and simply, "That's good" ran from table to table. At roughly $18 per bottle, it seems a decent enough value. Today, after really only a generation of sales, it has achieved a kind of benchmark status.
There are, however, other Irish creams on the market. In fact, just one year after Baileys was introduced, a competitor sprang to life (also in Ireland) marketing Carolans Irish Cream. Note also the slick marketing: who is Carolan? No one (still no possessive apostrophe!). Carolans is made with a smaller group of farmers but is nonetheless considered the second-leading producer of Irish cream in the world. Their claim to distinction lies in the ingredients of their Irish cream, which include locally made honey in Clonmel, Ireland and mead (a honey laced wine or beer, depending upon whom you ask).
This Clonmel honey flavor sang out in our tasting. The event was set up to include a lower-priced, medium-priced, and top-shelf cream liqueur. At $12 or so per bottle, Carolans represented our lower-priced selection but surprisingly a good one-third of our participants actually preferred it as their top-choice. It's sweeter than Baileys due to the honey and presents with similar color and viscosity (thickness). But it had an appeal that stretched beyond Baileys for virtually every participant. Where for Baileys they claimed "that's pretty good" for Carolans they announced "That's better!" Our public was generally surprised at the high flavor of the cream liqueur and its apparent quality. It was particularly well-received in the Mudslide. Its few detractors found the product a bit too sweet, particularly when served with ice-cream. We suspect that it would have been exceptional warmed (as mead often is).
The flagship offering at this tasting-saved for last-was Coole Swan Irish Cream. Since its recent launch it has had amazing critical reception, having received a double-gold medal in the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and named top liqueur overall at the entire event; it received the highest rating of "superlative" by Wine Enthusisasts; then it followed up with an "exceptional" rating of 93 points from the Beverage Testing Institute and a 5-star "supreme" rating from BevX. That's just to name a few. Coole Quay (producer) prides itself on specialty ingredients such as Madagascar vanilla and North African cocoa to flavor the liqueur.
The name "Coole Swan" appears to us to come from the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He wrote a poem called The Wild Swans at Coole, a poem from his 1919 collection meant to commemorate the heartache of a man living in a time when "all's changed." The swans symbolize a better time, a purer time, and also a changeless symbol of nature's beauty in an ever-changing world. That's a lot to ask of an Irish cream... (see the text of the poem at Bartleby.com)
In our own tasting, Coole Swan presents in a brilliant white color with a soft nose and has a sleeker, less toothsome mouth-feel than either Baileys or Carolans. At $30 a bottle it's a steal for the kind of accolades it has received - exceeding liqueurs that were double and sometimes triple its cost. While a vocal one-third minority preferred the sweeter Carolans at our tasting, the majority declared enthusiastically and strongly for Coole Swan.
In comparison to the other liqueurs, it's much more of a pure white with just a blush of brown... someone called it "a Swede with a tan." Baileys and Carolans both had a much deeper tan verging on chocolate milk. Its aroma was much more subtle and "erotically vanilla" in the words of another participant. Its flavor is less of dessert and more of sophistication. In fact, it was almost a shame to mix it up in a Mudslide or with ice cream.
Overall, a liqueur tasting is an adventure in sweetness. After nine drinks of cream liqueurs of one kind or another, half-drunk glasses littered tables like the remnants of a grade-school, Cookie-monster convention (with apologies to Sesame Street). But there is a lesson here... as the summer months approach and chilled drinks take the place of warm brandies and neat whiskeys as the drink of choice, it's easy to neglect the unexplored territory of Irish creams. In reality, there is a wealth of distinction between them.