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Not long ago, on a chilly, drizzly autumn afternoon, a customer I’d never seen before settled onto a barstool, set a book before her, and ordered a Baileys on the rocks. It’s not an order I get often. In more than six years working at this particular Brooklyn pub, I think I’d served it twice before. Maybe. For many, it falls into the guilty pleasure category: something we might take a nip of once in a while in the privacy of our own homes, or we’d discreetly slip a slug of into our coffee.
I admired my new customer’s unabashed decisiveness. She couldn’t have been happier with her drink, and with her book (I tried to catch a glimpse of the title—no luck). She sipped it slowly as she read, and ordered another. And then, after she completed another chapter, she ordered one more, as though it were her rightful reward. A three-Irish-cream afternoon. Who knew? And I have to tell you: I was jealous. I hadn’t had one in years. When the clock struck 8 p.m., and it was time for my shift drink, it was as silky and as sweet as I remembered: the distinctive, soft taste of Irish whiskey rounded by cream, tinged with chocolate and vanilla. Luxurious, wonderful, a proper treat.
And it was a jolt of nostalgia, too. Sometime in the late 1970s, after a long summer of Lillet spritzers and post-divorce despair, after my family returned to the city from the rented beach house and autumn began to shade our lives like a scrim, my mother traded in her aperitifs for something sweeter and richer, something more unambiguously comforting. She was never a big drinker: Two drinks—and nothing too heavy—were usually enough for her. But I don’t remember a time after that late ‘70s moment of discovery when she didn’t have a bottle of Irish cream in the house. And come the 1980s, like any minor adolescent delinquent, I snuck sips of it from time to time, when no one was looking.
That it was an Irish product hadn’t really registered, because at the time I didn’t care where it came from. What mattered then was that it tasted good and gave me a little bit of a buzz. Later, in college, I became infatuated with Irish literature, so much so that I spent the summer after my freshman year studying in Dublin—where I quickly developed a taste for Guinness and Irish whiskey. I could easily imagine James Joyce stopping into my favorite pub, not far from Grafton Street, for a pint and a chat. With a little more effort, I could envision William Butler Yeats nestled into a tattered leather wing chair, a peat fire glowing in the hearth beside him, with a notebook and a fountain pen and small glass of whiskey close at hand. But it was hard for me to summon a mental picture of any great Irish writer bellying up to a bar and requesting a glass of Irish cream. Besides, Yeats and Joyce were both long dead by the time Baileys launched in 1974. (Oscar Wilde predeceased both Joyce and Yeats by decades—but I suspect he might’ve gotten a decadent kick out of the stuff).
That summer in Dublin, I don’t think I saw a single person drinking Irish cream in a pub. For the presumed lightweights, there were always smaller glasses of beer (instead of pints) and shandies—those bubbly, yellow amalgams of lager and 7-up. What I discovered over subsequent visits, as years went by, is that Irish cream is more of a seasonal indulgence in Ireland. “You wouldn’t often serve it during the months of spring and summer,” Steven Mallon, a supervisor at The Spaniard, one of my favorite Belfast pubs, told me. “Towards the end of autumn we start to sell it more and more, especially at Christmas.”
I love giving homemade gifts at the holidays—especially drinkable ones—and I’d never made homemade Irish cream before. I knew that even those who might forgo the commercial stuff wouldn’t be able to resist it if it were made from scratch, and by a friend. It turns out to be spectacularly straightforward—especially if you use a blender instead of a whisk. Making Irish cream at home also allows for control over the flavor and the alcohol content. I like to keep it pretty simple, with the flavor of the whiskey in the foreground, and just a teaspoon each of espresso powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, and vanilla extract. But there’s no reason not to play with the recipe to your taste: I’ve heard of the addition of almond extract, or honey, or nutmeg.
Your homemade Irish cream won’t have the same, leisurely shelf life as the bottled stuff. It’ll keep in the fridge for about a week. But don’t worry about it: Odds are it won’t make it past Christmas night.