In the world of coffee, flavor can be controversial. Many aficionados insist that the beverage should be enjoyed straight-up so that the drinker can fully take advantage of the impressive bouquet of flavors that well-roasted beans can infuse into hot water. But for the rest of us normies, there is Irish cream.
For anyone who grew up in the ’90s, Irish cream — a creamy liqueur with hints of chocolate and whiskey — was a very fancy, very adult beverage. It’s what your parents added to their espresso martinis at holiday parties, and what mom poured into her coffee on Christmas morning when she was tired of hearing you shriek about your new Lego set. Now it’s considered totally pedestrian, replaced in cocktail bars with bartender-crafted cream liqueurs and displaced from bougie coffee bars by fancier, trendier flavors like lavender and Dalgona. At this point, you’re much more likely to find it in a supermarket, where there is no shortage of Irish cream in the coffee aisle, sitting alongside flavors like hazelnut, caramel, and vanilla. (It’s also infused in syrups and the actual coffee beans, too.)
But the alcoholic Baileys is both the most ubiquitous and the original brand, created in 1973 by executives at spirits company Gilbeys of Ireland, who were in pursuit of a smoother, more approachable beverage than straight-up whiskey. The drink’s prototype was a mixture of Jameson whiskey, cream, and sugar. Writing for the Irish Times in 2017, creator David Gluckman called the original beverage “bloody awful.”
“We went back to the store, searching the shelves for something else, [and] found our salvation in Cadbury’s powdered drinking chocolate,” Gluckman wrote. “It tasted really good. Not only this, but the cream seemed to have the effect of making the drink taste stronger, like full-strength spirit. It was extraordinary.” A decade after it was created, Gilbeys was selling 48 million bottles of Baileys a year, thanks in large part to the liqueur’s popularity in cocktails like White Russians and mudslides.
Baileys is now the top-selling liqueur in the world, with a slew of different flavors including the recently debuted red velvet, and a dairy-free version made with almond milk. (The company has also inspired many copycats like Irish butter juggernaut Kerrygold’s Irish cream liqueur, and Five Farms, a craft Irish cream also made in Ireland.) Starting in the 1990s, Baileys’s ad agencies aggressively pitched the liqueur as the ideal holiday beverage, perfect for sharing with friends and family during the holiday season. That tack makes a lot of sense, considering that Bailey’s is delicious when poured into coffee or hot cocoa, both cold weather staples. It’s also just boozy enough to have a couple of drinks at the company Christmas party without getting too wild.
“We invited a few friends over for Baileys and caroling,” reads one 1993 print advertisement. “An entire choir showed up at our door.”
It’s pretty unthinkable that whiskey, chocolate, and milk could make for something so rich and comforting, but there’s a reason why Irish cream has such a grip on the world: It’s delicious. It’s also still, in the world of chain coffee shops, a seasonal option. Dunkin’ only serves its Irish creme coffee around St. Patrick’s Day, while Starbucks limits its excellent Irish cream cold foam to the winter months. Perhaps it’s that scarcity, the idea that we can only get this flavor during specific times of the year, that inspires such loyalty.
And maybe Irish cream is in the very beginnings of making a comeback among even those with the fanciest of palates. Pastry chef Dominique Ansel collaborated with Baileys this month, debuting a nonalcoholic hot cocoa kit that includes chocolate ganache infused with Irish cream flavor. Even the queen of pop and living lavish herself, Mariah Carey, has debuted her own version of the liqueur called Black Irish, which is available in classic, salted caramel, and white chocolate flavors.
But like so many other things we enjoy during the holidays, including cranberry ginger ale and cornbread dressing, there’s no reason why enjoying Irish cream should be limited to just a few months. And there’s certainly no reason why anyone should feel, heaven forbid, uncool for enjoying the timeless combination of chocolate, cream, and booze. Call me basic, but I’ll be topping off my coffee with a shot of Irish cream — boozy or not — whenever I damn well please. (Pro tip: Baileys and gas station cappuccino cannot be beat.)