When the idea of a non-alcoholic week – or Weekender as it has become – was first pitched, I was a little sceptical. There’s a fashion to be seen nowadays stopping for a moment and not drinking alcohol as such. Then, going hell for leather for the remainder of the year. I don’t find such an approach appealing or ultimately worthwhile. A more thoughtful and considerate methodology is always best.
Hence why I’ve shunned the low or non-alcoholic beers and other fakery to bring you something truly memorable. In essence, Scotland’s other great drink: the one that is harder to find for some than a bottle of Glen Mhor. A soft drink that has become more than just a can of fizzy pop or juice. Essentially, it is Scotland trapped forever in a radiant liquid. The taste of our youth and our culture for many generations. A drink that doesn’t dominate the world, or wow trendsetters. Scotland’s own national beverage of choice: Irn Bru.
The Americanisation of the world continues unabated, at an increasingly rapid pace. Fuelled partially by Silicon Valley and social media. The giants of the soft drink realm are Coca Cola and Pepsi. These lumbering heavyweights dominate sales across the world, excluding countries such as Cuba and North Korea where other factors come into play. Generally, there is only 1 international market where they cannot claim domination. That marketplace is Scotland, where Irn Bru reigns supreme for as long as I can certainly remember.
Growing up and out on the streets, there was always a bottle of ginger to hand. Whether just hanging around being a nuisance, or reaching for a half-time refreshment after a brutal 45 minutes engaged in tribal warfare aka playing footba’ in the local park. Other drinks were frowned upon and if you didn’t have an Irn Bru then there was something clearly wrong with you. Having a glass bottle also came with a sense of danger. Not only could you return these to the seller for a refund once empty, thereby creating an underground currency, but in some cases, bottles were known to explode in the right conditions despite never being opened: this problem manifested itself again recently.
Back then, there was only 1 real version, which many refer to now as the classic. A low-fat version was kicking about, but was rarely seen on the streets. The original was a sugar-laden masterpiece that could give any can of Red Bull a good kick-in. The sugar rush is something clearly that many miss today. The ultimate hangover cure, the saviour of the day after the night before.
Times have changed, prompting new additions to the core range such as a diet version in 1980 (that has undergone a few name changes since) and in 2016, the Xtra. A recent UK sugar tax levy forced further action for Irn Bru, prompting many fans to stock up on the original to keep their memories fluid. Why the change? Irn Bru came into the higher end of the tax band, as the original recipe contained an impressive 10.3g of sugar per 100ml. This would trigger a tax of 24 pence per litre, which for the owners, AG Barr, was too much to swallow.
The new recipe offers a more modest 4.3g per 100ml and was enough to trigger an online petition to keep the natural recipe in production. To many scots, the tax was an assault on a national treasure from south of the border. Hilariously, what I dubbed the full-fat version, overnight has become considerably healthier in comparison, so now you’re not faced with a difficult decision of what version to order. Whilst the new edition remains palatable, the taste difference is noticeable. Since the move, AG Barr has been fighting to maintain sales which have fallen sharply since the flavour change, with 2019 down 20% on the previous year.
This has sparked a fightback from the brand that is well known for its original advertising including the Fanny campaign, Unbelievable stuff, New Fella, Granny and that 1980’s iconic range. We’re seeing more special editions. A ginger version was launched as a 2019 seasonal Christmas special (Crimbo Juice) and it was very focused on the ginger dynamic. I particularly enjoyed mixing it with less than stellar whiskies such as the Glenmorangie 10, Port Charlotte 10 or the Glenfiddich 12. And Irn Bru generally serves whisky well and is an ideal match. I even went so far recently to create the ultimate morning chaser with a can of Irn Bru and a 1975 Ardbeg, which was lovely.
The new editions come thick and fast with the latest being a very limited release called the 1901 Original Recipe. Initially, this was only available via certain retailers with a glass bottle retailing for anything between £2-£2.50 and shops selling out within hours of announcing a delivery. This demand was partially fuelled by the flippers (isn’t it great to know they don’t limit themselves to whisky?), hoovering up bottles and then selling them for up to £25 on eBay and other outlets.
Since this explosion, the 1901 has been deployed to further retailers and it remains thoroughly popular. While it doesn’t capture the sugar high of the original full fat version, it does give us a glimpse into the past and many are happy to pay the £2 for that journey. I cracked open a bottle for the review below, so I’ll leave my comments until later, but the fact our household is onto its 9th bottle already suggests it might be around for longer than originally envisaged if AG Barr has any sense.
The brand as such remains extremely popular and has transcended mere liquid form and embedded itself within the consciousness of the nation. Being used by sweet manufactures, chefs and much more besides. It has a life of its own and while it personally represents a part of my childhood, it remains a faithful necessity in the fridge and one day I’m sure my son will come to appreciate its charms. It deserves to be universally acclaimed and protected like Scotch.
I raided the local newsagents for additional supplies to bring you this marathon tasting. I drew the line at the energy drinks (classic and sugar-free) which were launched in 2019, as I’m not drinking any of that muck: you’ve got to look after your body.
Irn Bru 1901 – review
On the nose: sherbet, sugar, candy floss, orange peel, cream soda and icing sugar.
In the mouth: less ferocious fizz and instead more gentle and creamy bubbles provide a pleasing texture. Ginger root, cream soda, rust, almonds, Jaffa cakes, cough syrup and a wondeful prolonged heid and finish.
Irn Bru Original (new recipe) – review
On the nose: boiled sweeties, ginger, candy floss, almonds, sugary and jam tartness.
In the mouth: less sugar, less rush. Calm almost. Ginger, candy floss, marzipan and very limited. Next to no finish either and flat leading to a sense of disappointment.
Irn Bru Spiced Ginger – review
Colour: cheeks after a Scottish winter stroll.
On the nose: a gentle ginger awaits, some vanilla and cream soda reside beneath the root-ish exterior. There’s tinned peaches and candy floss, but little development and progression beyond.
In the mouth: ginger undoubtedly, yet not as fiery or earthy as I would have liked. A little caramel on the finish, prior to this carrot, tangerines, sugar cubes and freshly spun candy floss.
Irn Bru Sugar Free – review
Colour: carrot ginger.
On the nose: lots of sugar, candy floss, a touch of ginger, a withered orange segment and amber.
In the mouth: easy drinking, lacking that sugar-rush and instead comes across benign with hints of orange, more candy floss and cinnamon.
Irn Bru Xtra – review
Colour: winter rust.
On the nose: more fizz, jammy, rusty, candy floss, boiled sweeties and withered tangerines.
In the mouth: diluted orange, hint of raspberry, candy floss, rusty, chewing gum and boiled sweets.
What surprised me most about sitting down with these expressions was the lack of variation across the range excluding the 1901 and ginger releases. The sugar squeeze has almost eroded any significant differences that were tangible previously.
In a way, I believe this explains the drop in sales that the owners are currently experiencing. Drinking Irn Bru is not only a statement of being Scottish, but it is also a lifestyle choice. Some choose Irn Bru for the sugar and others to revive old memories. You can nowadays drink it more from a health perspective or as an energy boost, but the stalwarts and traditionalists have been pushed aside.
The fact that many are willing to pay in excess of £2 for a bottle of the 1901 shows there is a market for an Irn Bru recipe revival and a soft drink that is as bold and reckless as the advertising campaigns we’ve seen over the decades.
Lead image from Barrs, 1920’s Blender’s Glass finally finds a suitable liquid.