A recent tasting of Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur got us thinking about the way the Irish cream liqueur is changing and growing, and why that’s a good thing.
For a small country, we have an enviable amount of diverse and charismatic food and drink products in Ireland. There’s the whiskey, as well as quality meat, fish, and dairy products. There’s also all that whiskey, as well as poitín and cream liqueurs. Then there’s the soda bread, and Taytos. Plus, loads of great whiskey.
Helping to spread the good word is Bord Bia, an Irish state agency that promotes the country’s food and horticulture sector. One of the ways it does this is with trade events, and an annual gathering in February at the Irish embassy in London has become a regular gig for me as lots of drinks producers use it as a platform to debut new products.
It’s always a fun and illuminating night, with new distilleries, interesting products, and plenty of stories surrounding you. There’s also enough run-of-the-mill, loveless third-party liquid that will probably be gone in five years, but I’m focusing on the positives here. This year, in the midst of all the good company, whiskey, gin, mixers, and even a VR set (distillery tours from afar? Been there, done that) it was hard not to notice one stand in particular that had a big plastic cow on its table.
It belonged to Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur. I immediately asked for a sip as a) it looked delicious, b) the clever marketing of having a miniature cow on the stand absolutely worked on me, and c) I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the category. What our parents drink sticks with us, and cream liqueur is something of a favourite for my mum. I was also keen to pick their brains, as I’ve noticed a renewed interest in the category recently, with new players making a case that it’s time to rethink how we define the spirit, and that there’s room enough for them amongst the obvious big names. Which means Baileys. Let’s not skirt around that, we all know it and I’ve already put it in the title of the blog.
Five farms, one goal
It’s an opportunity that McCormick Distilling International Ltd, the brand behind Five Farms, is keen to take. Peter Martin, who handles business development for them, tells me they feel the potential is there to remind people what a unique and tasty drink Irish cream liqueur is and do something different. “It’s a category that has lost much of its charm and elegance through price fighting strategies and one that lacked a good point of reference at a higher premium level,” he says.
“Five Farms is a product that brings back the magic of a category that can be traced to farmer’s wives and grandmothers making traditional drinks for the family to enjoy. Five Farms boasts the provenance of Cork, which has a unique fertile soil, as well as the traceability of its cream down to the five family herds. It is a truly regional product steeped in quality and tradition.”
In order to trade on the notion that you’re premium booze, you need a production process that backs it up. For Five Farms, this begins at five family-owned farms on the coast of County Cork in Ireland (I think I’ve figured out where the name comes from). There, single batches of cream are collected each week in liveried vans, before being blended and bottled within 48 hours. The blend includes triple distilled Irish whiskey, but they’re not allowed to say which. You know how it is. While the category of Irish cream liqueurs demands only 1% of the alcohol content to be Irish whiskey, at Five Farms it’s a minimum of 10%, which is a costly choice but, as Martin says, the reward is added depth and warmth to the blend. “And not only is our Irish whiskey content high, but the cream concentration of butterfat is many times higher than the mass-produced products,” he adds.
Redefining Irish cream liqueur
For Five Farms, talking about process is an important way to distinguish itself. The brand seems to be relying on the notion somewhat that everybody understands that product provenance, original packaging (I love that early-1900s bottle design and swing-top cap), and quality liquid are indicators of premium standard spirits, and those have these will help refocus the identity of Irish cream liqueur. Which seems fair, really, doesn’t it? “We all know the category is currently dominated by seasonal price fighting brands that tactically embrace volume and market saturation,” Martin says. “This has established the category in the mind’s eye of the consumer and the chase for low price volume denies them the ability to stretch their brands into the growing premium spirits arena.”
This is where we come to category leaders like the aforementioned giant that is Baileys. It’s one of those brands that has the dual distinction of ensuring there is a category to enjoy at all, but also defining and potentially limiting it. We’re good at that in Ireland, just take a look at the whiskey category. Five Farms are attempting to redefine Irish cream liqueur, and according to Martin, one way of doing this is to establish a different price sector for the category. “Therefore we compete more horizontally across a range of other premium liqueurs and spirits and not necessarily less expensive cream liqueurs,” he explains.
Demonstrating the right credentials to grow the category is one thing, making sure people understand it is another. As Martin says, the rules around Irish cream liqueur can be confusing and even misleading, “especially when you throw in low price country creams into the mix which have different rules but very similar iconography to that of the brand leaders,” he explains. “The category is mainly defined by the content levels of Irish whiskey which is low in most other cases, but the consumer tends to believe it is all Irish whiskey. We go to the level of our content not governed by the rules, but by the final taste profile which we want to be firmly Irish whiskey but not overpoweringly to the point that takes the blend away from Irish creams”.
Hitting the sweet spot
Early indicators suggest Five Farms is getting it right. The brand holds the world score for a drink of its kind at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge with 97 points from 100, and even more impressively, my own bottle was gone in an instant. Seriously, I can’t recall how many times I’ve brought out something to share with my friends and it’s been emptied that quickly. People were comparing it to boozy caramel, commenting on how nice it would be in a hot chocolate or over ice cream (there are some great recipes here), and trying to hide the bottle when I wasn’t looking.
We forget sometimes when we’re very serious drinks lovers being very serious that this is supposed to be fun. One of the things Irish cream liqueur has going for it is that it’s really bloody tasty and instantly accessible. If you’re tempted to treat Irish cream liqueur as the brash, cheap cousin of whiskey, it’s time to think again. It’s always been delicious, but with brands now emerging that can add real stories and provenance to the mix, you can see exactly how this industry can begin to soar.
This isn’t to say that the tale Five Farms is telling is a new one. Ireland’s agricultural identity is well-trodden ground. You might worry all those green fields you can see in the pictures in this blog (and that miniature cow) means we’re dangerously close to Paddywhackery territory. We’re not alone in being cautious of this kind of presentation. Just look at how hard many within Scotch whisky are working to ditch the tartan and tweed imagery that once served it so well. Ireland has its own well-curated brand rooted in shamrocked countryside filled with folksy farmers. Brands like Baileys have played with this ideal, but there’s no actual provenance to them. It’s a creation of collaboration between boardroom and laboratory, not farm and table.
But we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can champion products that present and reflect an honest version of our vital agricultural industry. For example, a liqueur made using cream sourced solely from the family-owned farms. And quality Irish whiskey. That’s something to embrace. Especially if what they make it tastes like boozy caramel.