We’ve probably all been there on one St. Patrick’s Day or another. One of those brisk Saturdays in mid-March, with rain pitter-pattering on the pavement outside. Sitting at a bar that has the distinct odor of stale beer, industrial cleaner, and fried food. Huge green signs with neon-green shamrocks, cheeky leprechauns, and Irish flags covering the walls — all of it enticing us to drink, drink, and, then, drink some more. Feeling buzzed but not wanting to slow down, we rally our friends and a few nearby strangers to order a round.
This is the drink that has come to define St. Patrick’s Day in America. In Ireland and the UK … not so much. They still remember the harrowing, bloody, and devastating war that lasted 30 years that we, as Americans, seem all too ready to make light of. It may be the gold standard of St. Patrick’s Day order stateside, but some Irish run bars around the country are starting to refuse to serve the drink, given that the name just feels … demeaning. And fair warning, you may well get thrown out of a pub in Dublin if you dare to order one.
Let’s dig into where this drink came from, why it’s controversial, and whether it tastes good enough to make it worth bothering with.
WHAT IS A ‘BOMB’ SHOT?
First, let’s get this out of the way: A “bomb” shot is a real thing that exists in the cocktail world. It’s when a shot of something is dropped into a beer (or more recently an energy drink) and then that beer is chugged. So the ‘bomb’ in Irish Car Bomb does have a utility purpose in letting you know what kind of drink you’re ordering.
There are a lot of variations of bomb shots. A Sake Bomb is when an ochoko (sake cup) is balanced on wooden chopsticks over a half pint of lager. A Jägerbomb is a shot of Jägermeister dropped into a beer, or more recently a Red Bull. A Flaming Dr. Pepper is a shot of Amaretto and Bacardi 151 set on fire then dropped into a half pint of beer. A Skittle Bomb is Cointreau dropped into a Red Bull. And, of course, there’s the classic Boilermaker which is a shot of whiskey, bourbon, or rye dropped into a pint of beer and downed.
The point is, a shot dropped into a beer is called a ‘bomb shot’ and it is a legit order.
ORIGINS OF THE ‘IRISH CAR BOMB’
Back in the late 1970s, a barman in Connecticut with a very long name, Charles Burke Cronin Oat, started a winding and drunken path towards the invention of the Irish Car Bomb.
According to Oat, it all started at his bar, Wilson’s Saloon in Norwich, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1977. Bailey’s had just arrived on American shores and Oat was making shots of half-Bailey’s and half-Kahlua to drink with his brothers to toast their grandfathers. They aptly called the shot ‘The Grandfather.’
As the night wound along, the brothers realized they weren’t really getting drunk — Kahlua and Bailey’s pack a pretty weak ABV. So, they decided to amp things up a little bit and made a new shot of Kahlua and Bailey’s, topped with Jameson Irish Whiskey. They called that new invention an ‘IRA.’
This was meant to be an honorific of sorts. If you were Irish American in the ’70s in America, you knew exactly who the IRA was and probably had a soft spot for Northern Irish Independence. After all, this is when a lot of Irish American money was being funneled to Northern Ireland to fight off the yoke of the British.
Two years later, Oat and his St. Patrick’s Day revelers had an epiphany. This whole time they had been taking ‘IRA’ shots and chasing them with Guinness. Then they thought, why not put the shot in the Guinness and pound that? “Two years later, drinking IRAs and Guinness with my manager,” Oat reminisces, “I got the crazy idea as we were toasting to drop the shot in my half-finished Guinness.” As Oat did this, he toasted, “Bombs Away!” and the drink was born.
Then they named their new drink a ‘Belfast Carbomb’ which became an ‘Irish Carbomb’ as the night ground along.
The mix of coffee bitter Kahlua, creamy sweet Bailey’s, bitting Irish whiskey, and ultra smooth Guinness — with its own hints of coffee bitterness to tie it all back together — blended into a perfect concoction that goes down almost too easily. Over the years, the Kahlua has largely been dropped from the recipe to narrow it to only Irish ingredients. Still, it’s a drink that packs a heavy alcohol punch and has no right being as delicious as it is.
That deliciousness helped the drink catch on when Naval patrons frequented Oat’s bar. Those Navy men and women then traveled the country and world, spreading the Irish Car Bomb as they traveled. And, here we are in a 2018 America, where the Irish Car Bomb is a way to, ahem, “celebrate” Irish culture.
Oat has said that the name of the drink was meant as a bit of an inside joke. After all, how many bartenders have come up with cocktails and given them stupid names without knowing they’d become international sensations? Slippery Nipple ring any bells? But in recent years the bartender has admitted that the name ‘Irish Carbomb’ hasn’t exactly aged well.
“You never know if it might become famous, so pick the name carefully,” Oat warns.
Like most jokes told at a bar in the 1970s while binge drinking, this one was probably best left to father time. The war called “The Troubles” plagued Northern Ireland and Great Britain from 1968 to 1998 (yes, it’s that recent). It resulted in 3,500 fatalities and 52 percent of those deaths were civilians. Most occurred in Belfast, with 1971 to 1979 being the bloodiest years of the war.
Without getting into the history of the British massacres, IRA bombings and guerrilla tactics, and the endless list of car bombing reprisals, let’s just keep it to this: The whole thing was a bloody nightmare with scars that have yet to scab over, much less heal. The old “should I joke about this?” maxim comes to play here: Of course you can, but if it might bring up bloody history for someone, do you really need to?
Let’s face it, a bartender made a bad joke while drunk at his bar in the mid-1970s. Now, that bad joke is enshrined in cocktail lore evermore. But does it really have to be? Why are we slaves to a name of a drink? If a Martini with onions instead of olives or a lemon twist can become a ‘Gibson’ and a Manhattan with scotch instead of rye can become a ‘Rob Roy,’ why are we so beholden to a name that is clearly an insult to the Irish and British?
At the end of the day, part of the Irish Car Bomb’s stranglehold on bar culture is that it’s such a great drink. We have to look no further than the Redskins to know that there’s a definite desire in our culture to keep the things we love unchanged. But, really, we could simply call the drink a ‘Guinness Bomb’ or ‘J ‘n B Bomb’ or even an ‘Irish Bomb’ and not push quite so many buttons.
We have to ask ourselves, do we really want to bring up (and inadvertently celebrate) a war that was a no-win situation on all sides when we’re trying to have fun and get drunk? Would anything about our life change if, on Saturday, we ordered a ‘Guinness Bomb’ instead of an ‘Irish Car Bomb?’ The answer to that last question is no, of course not.
Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!
(Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!)