Leprechaun. Tub-o-Gold. Golden Farm. In 1962, Ireland’s largest agri-food cooperative was tussling with a colorful shortlist of names for its new butter brand. The focus, if it wasn’t obvious, was squarely on export markets. The launch was to take place in Britain, initially sidestepping Ireland entirely, before continuing to continental Europe and the wider world. In the end, the board is said to have been motivated by a “strong K” with the ability to travel easily and far. Kerrygold was born.
As of 2018, Kerrygold is the second-best-selling branded butter in the U.S. The gold-wrappered import sold nearly 23,000 tons of butter in the U.S. last year, and $1 billion dollars worth in more than 80 markets worldwide. In the less than 20 years since its U.S. launch, it has outsold every brand except Land O’Lakes, which, since it was founded in 1921, enjoyed almost an 80-year head start.
Today, Kerrygold is all over Instagram, even trending on posts that feature some of the internet’s most famous pie creations. “It’s hard for me to endorse specific ingredients,” says Alison Roman, the cookbook author and recipe developer currently best known for her chocolate chip shortbread cookie recipe. “And all of my recipes can be made with the grocery store brand of every ingredient. But if people use Kerrygold — or something like Plugra [a premium brand of “European-style butter”] — that’s a step up. The truth is, it does make a difference when you’re baking to use the best-quality butter.”
Those in the professional baking community — including authors like Roman, recipe developers, and private chefs — are exactly the demographic Kerrygold courts. Since at least 2011, Martha Stewart has extolled the merits of Irish butter (“preferably Kerrygold,” in earlier recipes) in baking. (Not surprisingly, the butter brand has been a sponsor for her show Martha Bakes.) Dora Charles, a Southern chef and author, told the New York Times in a 2015 interview that the cookbook writer Fran McCullough introduced her to Kerrygold, which then made its way into her recipes.
For Anna Gershenson, a Boston-based caterer and food consultant, Kerrygold is a go-to. “It imparts wonderful flavor to everything, be it toast, cooked grains, enriched doughs, you name it,” she says. “I am very discerning about where and how food is sourced. Kerrygold meets my standard.”
Kerrygold’s current status as a food-world favorite took decades to build. Its first formal introduction to the U.S., in 1998, began with an order of butter from Illinois that was small enough to provoke ridicule in Dublin, according to Róisín Hennerty, global director of marketing for Ornua, Kerrygold’s parent company. Still, the company saw possibility in selling the Irish product to the American market.
“Our first order of business was to prevent the pigeonholing of Kerrygold as a holiday product,” Hennerty says. St. Patrick’s Day was a useful focal point for Irish imports annually, but an overwhelming association with the March holiday, resulting in three-quarters of American business being done in the first quarter of the year, was untenable. “The rest of the year was spent meeting with retailers,” Hennerty says, “trying to convince them that daylong consumption of Guinness, corned beef, and cabbage was not representative of Ireland’s story of great food and agricultural production.”
By the early aughts, the company was holding launches in the summertime, bypassing St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Marketing of the butter soon began in California, where particular qualities (grass-fed, all-natural, hormone-free) were stressed before a receptive west coast audience. Kerrygold then worked its way easterly across the states.
Fortunate timing aided Kerrygold’s American expansion. After years of being demonized, full-fat butter benefited from changing perceptions about healthy fat consumption; in the mid-’90s, diners started swapping the high-in-trans-fats margarine for butter, and did so in droves. According to the American Butter Institute, butter consumption grew 25 percent between 2002 and 2012, with 2012 marking a 40-year high. By 2014, Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, a market research firm, declared that “Americans are eating more butter. There’s no question about it.” As the disparagement of dairy fat continued to wind down, more recent trends like bulletproof coffee, for which many proponents singled out the yellowy grass-fed Kerrygold, brought the brand to a new, diverse clientele.
Though the brand markets itself as a chef favorite, Kerrygold isn’t a product generally favored by restaurant chefs because the butter isn’t sold in bulk. When Kerrygold is used by restaurants, it arrives in the same half-pound foil packets that are available on grocery store shelves.
Those shelves are closely policed by Kerrygold. Rather than using a broker network to distribute the butter when it first landed stateside, Kerrygold hired interns in Ireland and dispatched them to the U.S. In 1998, as part of an exclusive six-month contract with Trader Joe’s, pre-launch, those interns liaised with shoppers and buyers — to great effect. Elaine Khosrova, the author of Butter: A Rich History, suggests that the height of Kerrygold’s marketing and distribution came at a time when the number of imported specialty butters was relatively few; the presence of Irish representatives helped market the product as a high-gloss import.
And consumers are willing to spend more on food with a story, Khosrova notes. “Kerrygold has that essence, feeling artisanal, even if it isn’t,” she says. “The romance of a place like Ireland also matters — green, rolling hills, beautiful cows, this image that’s pure.”
The decision to deploy Irish staff to American stores was likely informed by Kerrygold’s experience in European markets in the 1960s. In his 2015 biography of the grandfather of the Kerrygold brand, businessman Anthony O’Reilly, the Irish author Matt Cooper writes:
“…a decision was taken to hire five special ‘dairymaids,’ including the Miss Ireland of the time. It might not be considered acceptable in the 21st century world of business, but in the swinging sixties a company could launch a product by using beautiful young women in short skirts and tight tops. As it happened, the Kerrygold women turned out to be astute analysts of various shops, and their information was crucial in deciding where the concentration of supplies should be made.”
Today, the sales associates are drawn from a much wider and deeper pool, many of them U.S. graduates. They wear black polo shirts and sedate aprons, and give Kerrygold useful on-the-ground feedback; they also offer sales and sampling support in stores. “It’s remarkable that something kind of exotic took off in this way,” Khosrova says. “But you cannot underestimate the popularity of Irish culture in this country. Of course, if it didn’t taste good it wouldn’t do as well. The more-golden color I think also enhances the flavor [perception] for Americans, to some degree.”
Such popularity was neatly exemplified in Wisconsin last year, when a decades-old law pertaining to the grading of butter at state level by a “highly trained grader” (on the basis of at least 18 flavor characteristics, and 15 body, color, and salt characteristics) had the effect of restricting the sale of Kerrygold.
A series of lively headlines ensued. “Ban on Irish butter sparks fight in butter-loving Wisconsin,” announced the AP. “Why People Are Smuggling Illicit, Delicious Butter Into Wisconsin,” began the Daily Beast. The articles detailed the lengths that disgruntled Wisconsinites were taking to procure “bricks” of Kerrygold. The butter has since been returned to shelves.
Kerrygold introduced baking sticks to the U.S. market two years ago, pushing itself ever-further into the realm of “utility butter.” “The move spoke to the idea of ‘Kerrygold for everything’,” Khosrova says. “Kerrygold seems to have decided: We don’t want to be a premium butter. We want to speak to the average consumer, albeit with a more provocative origin.”
And the butter brand continues to sweat its origin story. A recent TV ad for the U.S. features the living, breathing Friesian cows of the golden packaging, wildflowers, books of Irish literature, and stars two red-headed children. A cursory Google search leads to a series of sincere interviews with winsome Irish dairy farmers walking grassy fields in which they were once children.
It is tricky to do enchantment and ordinariness at the same time. The words “splurge” and “splash out” still occur regularly alongside reviews and assessments of Kerrygold in the U.S., and, however popular, the butter’s reputation as an upmarket product remains intact.
This is not a balancing act at all familiar to the brand’s native market. When Lucky Peach published a story called “Classic Butter Taste” — really a fancy butter taste test — that featured Kerrygold, people in Ireland responded online with the crying-laughing emoji and boisterous expressions of disbelief. ”Haha — fancy butter!!!” exclaimed one Twitter user. “Kerrygold isn’t fancy,” wrote another. “It’s just butter.”
Siobhán Brett is an Irish writer based in New York.
Editor: Daniela Galarza