Cream liqueurs keep rising to the top


November 19, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Take a long, smooth sip of Baileys or some other cream liqueur and it's hard to remember there was a time when the only way to get such an extravagantly rich liqueur was to mix it yourself.

But almost three decades ago, the folks at Baileys revolutionized the notion of cream liqueur by introducing their Original Irish Cream.

Robert Plotkin, a Tucson, Ariz.-based beverage consultant and expert on spirits, was "knee-deep in the business" at the time, bartending at high-end establishments in Arizona. "No one could keep it in stock," he says.

Baileys Original Irish Cream's debut in Dublin in 1974 was the most successful spirit introduction in the last 30 years.

Produced in County Cork, the liqueur uses Irish whiskey and fresh Irish cream. The alcohol preserves the cream for long periods of time.

It sounds like an easy formula, but that is somewhat deceptive. The percentage of alcohol is crucial - the drink needs enough to stabilize the cream, but too much will cause it to separate and curdle.

Baileys figured out the magic number: 17 percent. Plotkin says almost all cream liqueurs are 17 percent, or come very close.

The company's Original Irish Cream truly was original, but it spawned a number of Irish imitators, of which Carolan's is the most successful.

By the 1980s, the excitement had died down, and although Baileys was still holding its own, distilling companies had not made much progress in expanding the category.

Then they tried a new approach, taking a chance that the taste of many male bartenders didn't necessarily coincide with the preferences of many women.

Plotkin recalls the introduction of McCormick's strawberry-flavored Tequila Rose, which struck him as being similar to "Pepto Bismal in color and viscosity," and predicted that it would bomb.

Instead, he says, it "went ballistic - propelled by women."

Another successful tequila-based cream liqueur was Keke Beach, a product that Plotkin says so perfectly imitates the taste of Key lime pie that when it's slightly chilled you can taste graham cracker on the finish.

But what really solidified the cream-liqueur category was the adoption of these drinks, especially Irish cream liqueurs, as a conventional ingredient in mixed drinks.

Instead of straight cream, Plotkin says, recipes began to call for Baileys. So, for instance, a White Russian With Cream became a White Russian With Baileys - greatly expanding the options for bartenders as well as amateur mixologists - and, of course, expanding the demand for cream liqueurs.

The latest news from Baileys is the introduction of its new, single-serving minis - perfect to keep handy in the refrigerator door or to take along to a picnic or party. Suggested retail for the four-pack is around $14.

Baileys and other cream liqueurs are best served chilled, or over ice. But it's good in an after-dinner coffee as well. Just add the Baileys to black coffee and top with whipped cream. Or, if you've a mind to mix it up, here are some tempting choices.

Baileys Comet

Serves 1

1 1/2 ounces vodka

1/2 ounce Irish cream

Fill glass with ice. Add vodka and Irish cream.

- "The Bartender's Black Book," 6th Edition, by Stephen Kittredge Cunningham

Baileys Fizz

Serves 1

2 ounces Irish cream

soda water

Fill glass with ice. Add Irish cream and fill with soda water.

- "The Bartender's Black Book"

Pink Russian

Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 ounces Tequila Rose

1 ounce vodka

3/4 ounce white creme de cacao

1/2 ounce half-and-half

Mix and serve on the rocks.

-- Tequila Rose Distilling Co.

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