What is Irish Cream

By Sina Torner / Last updated on April 6, 2023

Irish Cream is a sweet and rich liqueur based on Irish Whiskey and cream mixed with spices and flavorings.
Irish Cream

The iconic liqueur from Ireland is as delicious on its own as it is when you incorporate it into cocktails. It is based on cream and the most popular alcoholic Irish export: Whiskey. But even if you are not into Whiskey at all, as long as you have a sweet tooth, Irish Cream will be right up your alley. 

Yet, what sounds like a beverage with a great traditional background is actually a pretty new invention from the 70s. 

What is Irish Cream

The two main components of Irish Cream are Whiskey and cream. This base gets spiced up with sugar, cocoa, vanilla flavorings, and a little coffee. 

While the cream usually accounts for about 50% of the blend, the large share of the remaining 50% is Whiskey. If you want to make Irish Cream at home, you can go with five parts cream, four parts Whiskey, and one part sugar and flavoring.

On average, Irish Cream has an alcohol content of about 15-20%. With all the sugary components, the cream, and the alcohol, Irish Cream is also quite heavy. One serving (1.5oz) of Baileys, for example, has 140 calories. -Don't get your hopes up. Other brands don't have less.

How Irish Cream was invented

As I briefly mentioned, Irish Cream doesn't have as much of a tradition as one might think. While Irish Whiskey is a product from the 13th or 14th century, the cream liqueur only can look back onto a history of barely 50 years. And to be precise and maybe a little nitpicky, it isn't even an Irish invention. 

Is Irish Cream Irish?

The first Irish Cream on the market was Baileys. It got invented by Tom Jago in cooperation with consultants David Gluckman and Hugh Seymour-Davies. All three English men who word for the Irish division of a British company in Dublin. You probably can see where I'm going with this. If Baileys is an Irish invention is more or less a matter of interpretation.

Said Tom Jago, by the way, also is the creator of the coconut liqueur Malibu and Johnny Walker Blue Label.

Early beginnings of the famous cream liqueur

Anyway, Tom Jago needed a new product for Gilbey's of Ireland to sell on the international market. That was because Ireland's economy was based mainly on agriculture at the time, and the government wanted to change that. Therefore, they were giving generous subsidies on exports into new markets.

The whole process began in 1971, but there was little progress until consultants David Gluckman and Hugh Seymour-Davies joined Tom Jago in the product finding process. Because Ireland has been - and still is -famous for its dairy products and, of course, for Whiskey, the idea arose to combine these two. 

Cream and Whiskey

Gluckman threw together some Jameson Whiskey and single cream and hoped for the best. The whole thing must, at first, have seemed very unlikely, and apparently, the result was quite appalling. But he and Seymour-Davies didn't give up and added some sugar and Cadbury’s Powdered Drinking Chocolate. Suddenly the concoction wasn't all that awful anymore. -And Tom Jago liked it, too. 

Introducing Irish cream to the public

However, with the Irish loving their Whiskey, it couldn't be expected the creamy mix would be a hit in Ireland. And indeed, it wasn't at first. An all-male test group deemed it girly - even though drinking the whole of it. And a second round with all-female testers wasn't too promising either. 

A few weeks later, finally, two policemen in a pub deemed the product a hit, and that was that. When, after that, Jago and Gluckmen introduced the product to the management, they liked its taste and didn't care about market research at all. -Different times.

Long story short: after months of testing, presenting, setbacks, recipe tweaking, and thinking up marketing strategies Baileys was born in 1974. Even though it took another year to start looking like it could become a success. 

Then, within five years after gaining traction on the international market, Baileys had as many as 75 competitors. Among them are famous brands like Emmet's, Carolans, St. Brendans, and many more.

If you want the long story, check out the article about the invention of Baileys by David Gluckman in the Irish Times. 

How to drink Irish Cream

Early marketing campaigns made sure Irish Cream was closely associated with cozy, cold winter evenings. But Irish Cream served on the rocks is also an irresistible delight on a warm summer day. And it is a beautiful cocktail ingredient, as well. -For instance, in a Chocolate Martini, the Mudslide, or the Screaming Orgasm.

One of the most popular ways to consume Irish Cream is in form of a shot. It certainly is not the most innovative serving and has a bit of an old-fashioned air to it, but a good old B-52 still is a crowd-pleaser. And a Baby Guinness is great fun, too. Especially during St. Patrick's Day.

Substitutes for Irish Cream

If for some reason (although it's hard to believe), you should have trouble getting your hand on a bottle of the creamy liqueur, there are some options that come close. If you just can't get the original and wonder which other brand to choose, check out the best budget alternatives to Baileys.

Further, in the unlikely event of not being able to get Irish Cream at all, Amarula is a favorable alternative. It's a South African cream liqueur made from the marula fruit. It has the same ABV and a similar texture. Or you can go with chocolate liqueur, for instance, the white chocolate version from Mozart.

The best option, however, is to make your own. It's pretty easy, really. All you need is cream, condensed milk, Whiskey, vanilla extract, and cocoa powder. For instructions, head to our recipe for homemade Irish Cream.

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