The cream of the liqueur crop
In the end it is the salted caramel cream liqueur that breaks me. It’s new, an ownlabel supermarket drink made with sea salt, single Irish malt and lashings of thick double cream and it’s just so delicious that I am coming out and saying it: I have a secret thing for cream liqueurs. I have spent years pretending not to be interested in them, covertly ordering Baileys on ice in a pub at the end of the night, as if it’s dessert, when I think no one else will notice (usually everyone else jeers for a bit then follows suit). I mean, it’s like saying, “I like looking at photographs of puppies and kittens,” isn’t it?
Apparently it was ever thus. When Baileys was first created back in the early Seventies, it bombed with the focus groups who wrote it off as “girly” (they also complained that it tasted of “kaolin and morphine”.) The project went ahead because Tom Jago, who was in charge of it at International Distillers and Vintners (IDV), popped the negative reports in his briefcase and decided to ignore them.
Cream liqueurs themselves are pretty hard to ignore at the moment. Baileys has just launched a new one, called Chocolat Luxe made with actual Belgian chocolate (although I note there is only 30g of it in each bottle), fused with the original Irish cream. Several of my wine friends have been raving about this one (warning: never try to taste it in a glass you’ve been using to taste wine – it splits disgustingly), particularly when it is mixed with Stoli Caramel to make something like a liquid Millionaire’s Shortbread. I don’t quite like it enough – the chocolate doesn’t taste right. But I do like Merlyn. This is boutique stuff: a cream liqueur made by Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park, using spirit distilled from malted barley and fresh dairy cream. I was given a small nip to try in Vagabond, an independent wine merchant in London, when I popped in there at about 11 o’clock one morning. It went down awfully easily. “Delicious, isn’t it?” said the man who had poured it for me. All this encourages me to feel that coming out is going to be OK.
What is more, they sell 82million bottles of Baileys a year (it now comes in several flavours, including coffee and biscotti — though my advice is to stick to the original) so it’s not exactly just me.
Oddly, though, the dangerously addictive and much-copied taste of Baileys wasn’t consumer-driven, Tom Jago tells me when I meet him to discuss it. “It came about simply to get rid of some stuff. It was 1973, I had a budget from IDV of £10,000 a year to think of new products. There were some new Irish laws that gave very favourable tax breaks, and IDV had just been taken over by Grand Metropolitan which owned Express Dairies – and a great big milk factory in Cork so there was a lot of cream…”
Jago says he “gave the coordinates of the brief” to David Gluckman, a South African who had the key idea for the brand, and Gluckman’s old Etonian business partner, Hugh Seymour-Davis.
They have different memories of how the drink came together. In Jago’s version of the story, there’s a Brandy Alexander drunk in a bar. In Gluckman’s, the idea to mix cream with Irish whiskey came from his background as an account executive in an advertising agency, creating the Kerrygold butter brand: his plan was to piggyback on the feelgood, lush fields and happy cows mood.
Baileys – the name was stolen from a restaurant on Greek Street in Soho because it sounded right — is now huge, of course, requiring the production of some 275million litres of fresh milk a year to supply enough cream. That’s quite a lot of happy-looking cows.
One of the curious things about cream liqueurs is that they taste more alcoholic than they actually are. “Having the cream in your mouth, it’s like having a mouth full of marbles,” says Jago, “And the whiskey sitting around them, so you feel the hit.”
Getting the chemistry to work isn’t easy either – bartenders complained that they couldn’t get anything out of the early bottles of Baileys shipped to the US – the cream had churned itself solid en route.
Anyway, now I’ve come out about liking cream liqueurs I can spend Christmas drinking them. And as for photographs of kittens and puppies, I notice the Twitter account Cute Emergency – pictures of animals “for when you need something to immediately cheer you up” — has more than three quarters of a million followers, including the executive producer of Al Jazeera America and Louise Mensch.
Maybe they’d both like a bottle of Salted Caramel Irish Cream Liqueur as well?
Welsh wizard: Stephen Davies, managing director of Penderyn Distillery, which makes Merlyn cream liqueur