The Irish Car Bomb: the controversial drinking with a divide reputation

Served on St Patricks Day in the US, the drink is least popular in the UK, where many remember the violence and deaths provoked by the Troubles

Bartenders, as a breed, are not overly concerned with political correctness when it comes to cocktail names. Many tips have been culled by serving Slippery Nipples, Screaming Orgasms and Between the Sheets. The latter actually dates back to the 1930s, showing that barkeeps have long been comfortable with cocktails that come with a wink and a nod.

But barroom banter can descend into a deep freeze when one popular St Patricks Day drink is called for: the Irish Car Bomb, which consists of a shot of Irish whiskey, Baileys Irish Cream and sometimes Kahla, served alongside (or dropped into) a pint of Guinness.

While the Troubles that long plagued Northern Ireland and Britain may be a distant memory to US millennials, the mere mention of the cocktail can still get some drinkers backs up. The drink is least popular in the UK, where many still keenly remember the violence and deaths provoked by the decades-long conflict.

Perhaps more than any other cocktail, the Irish Car Bomb is a drink with a split reputation dictated entirely by nationality. In 2014, a bar in Oxford, England, was compelled to rescind a promotion featuring the drink in the face of public outcry. In the US, meanwhile, it is consumed by feckless millions who harbor no qualms about the indelicacy of the name. (So accepted is the drink on these shores that Irish Car Bomb cupcakes are popular seasonal treats.)

The drink gets some bad press to this day, said Charles Oat, the Connecticut bartender who invented the drink. It wasnt done to celebrate car bombs, he added. It was done to celebrate Irish families here in America.

Although Diageo, the British liquor conglomerate that owns Guinness and Baileys, has no doubt profited from the cocktails popularity, it does not support the drink.

We are proud of the role our brands play in celebrating occasions such as St Patricks Day, said Emily Hallie, a Diageo spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. We have a stringent marketing code which ensures that we promote only the responsible consumption of our brands. As such we do not seek to support drinks such as the Irish Car Bomb.

I remember many a time when working in Covent Garden bars, we would often be evacuated after bomb scares. So yes, the name of this drink would cause offense, said Wayne Collins, a British bartender and drinks consultant. Even though there has been some long peace in Northern Ireland, we have seen a few splinters of troubles arising again recently as this year is the 100-year anniversary of the Easter uprising, so I wouldnt imagine it being seen on bar menus today.

It would be a brave and stupid person who ordered such a drink in the UK, added Simon Difford, the longtime publisher of Class, the British bar trade magazine. For many of us older Londoners, the Irish Troubles were our equivalent to 9/11.

On St Patricks Day in New York City, however, the Irish Car Bomb is a barroom staple. Its St Patricks Day, said Dermot, the owner of the Abbey Tavern in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, with a shrug. Everyone wants an Irish Car Bomb.

Though Dermot (who declined to give his last name) is originally from Ireland, he is not irked by calls for the potion. It doesnt bother me, he said. Its a fucking cocktail. He said he hadnt heard of any New York bars that refused to serve it but guessed if they did, it was probably the individual bartenders decision, not the bars.

Anthony Malone, an owner of the urbane, well-loved Swift Hibernian Lounge in the East Village, said his bar doesnt get that many orders for the cocktail. But his bartenders would not refuse to make one even if they admit to holding a low opinion of any patron who makes the request.

They reserve the right to add an idiot tax to the few who dare order such a terrible drink, Malone said.

Oat never intended to stir up such a fuss. The drink came about accidentally on St Patricks Day in 1976 when he was drinking with some friends in Billy Wilsons, his Norwalk, Connecticut, bar.

Baileys Irish Cream had just come to America, he recalled. We were drinking and the bartenders were putting Baileys in everything. I was having Baileys with Kahla. I realized we werent getting anywhere because both Baileys and Kahla are pretty low in alcohol. I asked for some Irish whiskey and poured it in the shot and it boiled up.

He called the impromptu concoction an IRA, and enjoyed it with a Guinness on the side.

We didnt think anything of it, he said. Then I was looking down the bar an hour later and people were saying, can I have one of those IRAs theyre drinking? A couple of years later he got the idea of dropping the shot inside the pint. We just said Bombs away!, he said. The Irish Car Bomb was born.

Philip Duff, an Irish-born, New York-based cocktail expert and consultant, is unsure why the drink is considered any more offensive than other drinks with provocative names.

On the Offend-O-Meter, its about as offensive as a Kamikaze, he suggested, which you do find served in Japan.

Simon Ford, a former British bartender and brand ambassador who is now a partner in the 86 Co spirits producer, agrees.

I dont think the name offends people anymore, Ford said. The British and the Irish have a long tradition of using humor and satire to deal with serious issues. Putting some satire to the name of a drink would be a coping mechanism rather than something that is offensive.

Meanwhile, Dermot at Abbeys Tavern suggested a different reason why the drink is not popular in Ireland. And it has nothing to do with politics.

Over there, if you have a glass of Guinness, youre not going to be dropping any shots into it, he said. Youre just going to drink your Guinness.

  • This article was changed on 17 March 2016 to remove a phrase describing the Troubles as decades-long conflict between Northern Ireland and England.

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