The Soda That Outsells Coca Cola In Scotland: The Legend Of Irn-Bru
Back in the 1880s, a Confederate army veteran named John Pemberton was trying to fund his opiate addiction by selling cocaine-laced wine, which he marketed as a cure for both constipation and erectile dysfunction (two conditions you definitely want resolved simultaneously). When the local government banned liquor, Pemberton was forced to improvise a replacement beverage on the fly. The result was Coca-Cola, which went on to become the most popular soft drink on Earth, closely followed by similar US sodas.
Their triumph was so complete that the Soviet Union once paid for a shipment of Pepsi in old battleships, briefly making PepsiCo the sixth most powerful navy on Earth. Fortunately, they didn't need to invade anywhere, having already conquered the world. But while Coke and its imitators have achieved market dominance in almost every country not actively under trade embargo, there are a few scattered pockets of resistance.
What kind of mystical soda ambrosia could possibly outsell Coke, a drink so delicious that nobody even minded when they took the cocaine out? For an answer, we turned to Scotland, a small country east of Ireland and north of nothing in particular, where a rust-themed concoction called Irn-Bru has outsold every other soda since at least 1947.
The Taste Is Impossible To Describe
Now, we know what you're thinking: To defeat Coke, Pepsi and Mr. Pibb, Irn-Bru must have a truly amazing taste. And it does, it's just that it's not technically possible to describe that taste using words. It definitely has flavoring, but it all adds up to an actual flavor found nowhere else in nature, and ideally nowhere else in science either. It's definitely sweet, and there's a faint hint of metal somewhere in there, but beyond that it's like trying to describe Cthulhu to a disinterested hummingbird. The English language just isn't equipped for what we're trying to do here.
But we're not quitters, so here goes. Basically, imagine one of those experiments where someone leaves a penny in a glass of Sprite for a month to see if it dissolves. Now imagine drinking the resulting liquid. Irn-Bru tastes almost exactly like watching some other guy do that. Americans tend to describe it as tasting like bubblegum or cough syrup, but that's not quite right either. It tastes more like licking your braces after chewing gum for eight hours. It tastes like cough syrup on your heart surgeon's breath. It's perhaps the only soft drink in history to be flavored exclusively like itself, suggesting an invention in some sort of time loop.
If anything, Irn-Bru's indescribable nature is a point of pride in Scotland. We're talking about a brand that for years advertised itself as flavored like a bridge strut. Social media users have proudly described it as tasting like a "rusty nail watered by the tears of Scottish children" and "a bubbling highland stream mixed with casual violence." We'd describe it more like discovering the world's last can of Fanta 30 years after the apocalypse. It tastes like finding a loose rivet in your pack of jawbreakers and powering through it anyway. It tastes like dental tools, if the dentist was a double agent for Big Cavity. It tastes like being beaten by a Candy Kingdom loan shark. It tastes like Scotland. It tastes great.
It Was Advertised Like The Mountain Dew Of The 1900s
The original Iron Brew was actually a vanilla-flavored soda invented in New York and marketed as the "Ideal American Drink." America politely disagreed and Iron Brew quickly went out of business, but the name was soon copied by various bottlers and imitators. The A.G. Barr company of Scotland started selling their own version of Iron Brew in 1899, although sales were initially limited by the fact that its delivery carts could only get 10 miles from the factory each day before the horses got tired. Its original target market was Glasgow steelworkers, a hardy bunch who had proved resistant to Barr's earlier sodas like "Wee McGregor's Brew" and "Lil Good Boy's Fancy-Lad Treat" (we made one of those up, but won't say which). The new Iron Brew promised to be an iron-flavored soda for their iron-flavored lives.
As a result, the soda was advertised basically like turn-of-the-century Mountain Dew. Barr sourced celebrity endorsements from the Highland Games, the Edwardian Scottish equivalent of the X-Games, where large men in larger mustaches competed to throw boulders around the place. An early spokesman was famous tosser Alex Munro, who competed to hurl a large tree as far as possible in an event called the caber toss. Early Barr ads featured Munro in a loincloth declaring Iron Brew "a strengthening and invigorating beverage ... a splendid tonic while training and an excellent pick-me-up after a tussle," which nowadays scans like a bot trying to stealth market a Latvian energy drink on Grindr.
Shortly after signing up Munro, Iron Brew landed its most famous endorsement yet when it signed up legendary strongman Donald Dinnie, who had become a Scottish hero in 1860 when he carried two boulders across a bridge outside Aberdeen. The boulders are still there (they weigh 733 pounds combined) and lifting the "Dinnie Stones" is still a rite of passage for strongmen. By the time Iron Brew came calling, Dinnie was pushing 70 and living in near-poverty, scraping a living with an act where he hoisted a table on his back while dancers performed a Highland jig on it. So he was more than happy to appear in ads in a kilt, declaring Barr's Iron Brew the perfect recipe for achieving "athletic fame."
Truth-in-advertising regulations caused a name change to Irn-Bru in 1946 (Irn-Bru does contain iron, but doesn't meet the technical definition of brewing). However, the tough-as-nails image continued to be a theme in Irn-Bru advertising. And we do mean literally as tough as nails -- for many years the brand's slogan was "Irn-Bru: Made In Scotland From Girders." That's right, Coke is apparently second best in Scotland because it just hasn't made enough effort to associate itself with oxidizing metal.
Trump "Effectively Declared War On Scotland" By Banning Irn-Bru
Whatever you think of his politics, noted Diet Coke lover Donald Trump is renowned for his charm and tact, making lifelong friends wherever life's journey takes him. So you'd be surprised to learn that he's not very popular in Scotland. The problems actually started long before he became president, when he showed up promising to build the "world's greatest golf course" in a small coastal village near Aberdeen. The local council politely declined the offer due to environmental damage, only to be overruled by the Scottish government, which cited Trump's promise to invest $1.25 billion and create six thousand permanent jobs. Naturally, this turned out to be code for
Meanwhile, locals who refused to sell their land to the golf course complained that Trump had bought up all the surrounding land and built walls around their houses, then sent them the bills for the walls. At least one couple refused to pay, declaring that "Mexico won't pay" and that they wouldn't either, and began flying a Mexican flag whenever Trump visited. Another neighbor took to flying a "Hillary for President" flag after Trump attacked his "slumlike" home. Meanwhile, Trump also had a major squabble with the originally supportive Scottish government after they announced plans to build a wind farm nearby. And then things went from bad to worse when Trump did the unthinkable and banned Irn-Bru.
In 2018, the news broke that Trump's golf course was denying every Scotsman's natural-born rights by refusing to serve Irn-Bru to guests. Apparently, the drink had been banned entirely after the Trump Organization became concerned it could stain their precious carpets (unlike cowardly non-staining sodas, Irn-Bru sears itself onto every available surface with the intensity of battleship paint). General manager Ralph Porciani squealed to the local paper that "We can't have it staining when to replace the ballroom carpet would be 500,000 pounds alone." Naturally, all hell broke loose.
A local lawyer called it "effectively a declaration of war on Scotland." The Guardian suggested that Trump had withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal in the same week as "a crude feint intended to divert attention from the deep insult to our national drink." Meanwhile, Scottish Twitter users described Trump as "an absolute zoomer" over the decision, which we're choosing to interpret as an insult. Either way, the decision was the final straw for many Scots, who declared that they liked their American presidents just the way they didn't like their sodas: not orange.
The Recipe Is A Strictly Guarded Secret Of The Barr Family
Drinks companies always like to make a big deal about their "secret formulas." Coke, for instance, claims its recipe is a
Until recently, all Irn-Bru "essences" were personally mixed by company chairman Robin Barr, the great-grandson of the drink's inventor. Once a month, Barr would lock himself inside a room at company headquarters and mix up a huge vat of the concentrated syrup, which would then be used to make all the Irn-Bru sold around the world. We like to picture the other executives gathered outside the room listening in horror to a bunch of clanging and screaming while orange smoke billows under the door and all the lights in the building flicker wildly. In 2009, Robin Barr announced his plans to retire after 48 years at the company, passing the recipe on to his daughter Julie, who planned to eventually take over as mixer.
As well as Robin and Julie, the recipe is also known to a third director, whose identity remains a complete secret, ideally even from himself. For security reasons, none of the three Bru-knowers are allowed to travel on the same flight, which must make planning family vacations an absolute nightmare. As an added precaution, a written version of the recipe is also kept in a heavily guarded Swiss bank vault. Although personally we don't think this goes far enough and propose that at least two of the secret-keepers be kept safely in suspended animation at all times, while the third leads Irn-Bru's thousand-year war against the Lycans.
But let's wrap up with a quick warning. In 1890, famed Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson published a poem called "Heather Ale," based on a traditional Scottish legend. It tells the story of a cruel king who slaughtered the ancient Picts searching for a legendary drink called Heather Ale. At last, the king discovered the father and son who held the secret of brewing Heather Ale and threatened them with death unless they shared the recipe. Drawing the king aside, the father declared that he was an old man and willing to make a deal, but would be afraid to do so in front of his fierce son. The king at once ordered the son pushed off a cliff, at which point the old man burst out laughing:
True was the word I told you:
Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling courage
That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.
So when Donald Trump's rampaging golf course security guards team up with Coke and finally storm the Barr family reunion, seeking the fabled Irn-Bru recipe, we're advising everyone to stay away from cliffs. We can't afford to lose any more legendary Scottish drinks.