There aren’t many countries where Coca-Cola isn’t the most popular drink. Scotland is one of them. And unlike some of the others — such as North Korea or Cuba — it’s not because Coke isn’t sold. It’s because of the popularity of Irn Bru, Scotland’s ‘other national drink’.
Few soft drinks have such a devoted following as Irn Bru. It has inspired tattoos, poetry (‘a drop ae yer liquid gold’) and — in true Scottish style — its own batter. Why is it so popular? It helps that it is an excellent hangover cure, but it has something else going for it — a sense of fun. Irn Bru is known for pushing things a little too far in advertising campaigns. There was a famous billboard in 2003 to promote the diet version which featured a bikini-clad model and the caption ‘I never knew 4.5 inches could give me so much pleasure’.
Irn Bru was founded in Falkirk in 1901 by the Scottish pharmacist Robert Barr after his career as a cork cutter came to an end. While the bright orange soft drink does contain a very small amount of iron (0.002 per cent), Barr had to change its name from ‘Iron Brew’ in 1947 owing to the fact it isn’t actually brewed. Few people are sure what exactly is in Irn Bru. It is said that only three people know the recipe — Robin Barr, the great-grandson of the founder, his daughter Julie, and a mystery third person. Connoisseurs say they can detect hints of citrus, blackcurrant and ginger. I taste bubble gum with a hint of steel.
I will not have been the only one who felt a wave of panic last week when the manufacturer, A.G. Barr, warned that the national carbon dioxide shortfall could lead to an Irn Bru shortage. It’s not the first time fans have resorted to stockpiling. In 2018, there was another panic when A.G. Barr announced that it was going to change its recipe to reduce the sugar content by half because of the government’s new sugar tax. Thousands of people signed a ‘Hands off our Irn Bru’ petition. Bru purists rushed to supermarkets to bulk-buy.
I had my own strategy. I hoarded as many cans as possible under my bed in my small London flat and dispatched my parents in Scotland to supermarkets to sort out a home supply. I also became a far more demanding customer in my local chip shop, asking the (surprisingly understanding) staff to double-check each can for sugar content before they passed it over.
Although the less sugary version of Irn Bru is now the status quo, there are options for purists who look hard enough. After the change, around 100 cans made from the old recipe were found in a Luton newsagent’s stockroom. Word spread on Facebook and the cans sold out in 15 minutes.
For those who don’t fancy spending the day trawling the internet for Irn Bru leads, there is now a special sugar-filled ‘1901’ edition for aficionados.