I'm Scottish. Therefore, Irn-Bru isn't just a teeth-eroding fizzy drink to me. It's part of the tapestry of my existence, the foundation of most of my teenage memories.
Photo via Flickr user Mary Hutchison
During the early part of the 80s, I grew up just outside Edinburgh near what is now a rare thing: a mining village.
The long, hot, chalky-white dog turd-filled summers were punctuated with an annual treat—The Miner's Day Gala. Initially held in Scotland to celebrate the introduction of an eight-hour working day, by the time it had reached Thatcher's Britain it was more of an open day at the community centre, where toothless old men showed off their prize turnips and tired-looking women laid out delicate, hand-made knitwear. Each child of the village—and me, who lived three miles away—got a special lunchbox, paid for by the Miner's Club. The box was comprised of three things—a white bread ham sandwich, a jam donut and a delicious, fortifying can of Irn-Bru.
I remember it like it was yesterday, the primary school playground where the gala was held all gussied up with almost enough bunting to look presentable. Lorraine Bunion trying to swap her packet of onion rings for a donut. The thick layer of margarine in the ham sandwich oozing out of the crust. But the day is largely memorable for another reason—it was the first time Irn-Bru came to pass my lips, the first time I ever knew the true feeling of discovery, of newness, of possibility.
Founded in 1901 by A.G Barr, Irn-Bru is known as "Scotland's other national drink". It may as well be known as the other blood type, though—up there, Irn-Bru's sales eclipse Coca-Cola. Allegedly Scotland is the only country where this happens, and, thanks to these sales, Irn-Bru the third best selling soft drink in the UK.
Its unique, un-earthly flavour washes down kebabs, school dinners, business deals and wakes. It fuels builders as they expand Scotland's major cities and the young surgeons that might fix their broken bones if they fall. Its nuclear orange glow—putting Tango, Lucozade and the like to shame—comes from the controversial colourings Sunset Yellow FCF and Ponceau 4R, which, despite being banned by the Food Standards Agency, appear to have not been replaced.
Irn-Bru is famous for its marketing campaigns, which have always hinged on the inherent, dry, self-effacing wit of us Scots. Nothing is beyond parody. Finding out your blind date is a 15-stone bruiser with three kids? Check. Your wife wanting to call your new born Fanny? Check. Even Raymond Briggs' The Snowman—essential Christmas viewing—got a makeover. They've even changed their chunky logo in the past to simply read "Fanny", or other popular Scottish names like "Senga", "Rab" and "Tam".
You don't need me (someone with an actual fanny magnet on their coffee machine) to tell you how much fun you can have with the words "drink" and "fanny" in one sentence. See? We're funny bastards. Check out our own Wikipedia entry for Irn-Bru if you don't believe me.
My prevailing memory of Irn-Bru marketing is the "Made in Scotland. From Girders" tagline from the 80s. I know what a girder is (an iron beam used to support heavy duty construction) because I watched ten million hours of The Family-Ness as a kid and saw this advert during every single ad-break.
A girder is a life enhancing, clout-giving thing. It makes you strong, your hair glossy. It makes you look, according to this luxurious ad, like the physical embodiment of 80s beauty. But it also bites back. Irn-Bru had a sense of humour about itself. Because, after all, a radioactive-looking fizzy drink whose only molecular similarity to a girder is in the 0.002 per cent of ammonium ferric citrate (the formula of ammonium iron) listed in its ingredients couldn't really be that great for you. God knows it's probably as much good for your bones as a piece of rhubarb is for a shoehorn. However, this is beside the point.
Back to that mysterious, galactic flavour. At school, we used to drink a bottle of Irn-Bru every single lunchtime. Despite being shocked that I still have any of my own teeth—each can has 37g of sugar—I am more surprised that my soft palate hasn't eroded. Popping open a can, plastic bottle, or, for the retro-wanker, a glass bottle, it's the smell—like someone has electrocuted a bag of Haribo—that hits you first. I did a quick straw poll of Scottish friends on Facebook to try and work out how we all perceived the flavour. Here's what they had to offer:
"It tastes like orange. The colour, not the fruit."
"Jam sandwiches filled with pennies."
"A red-headed lady's fanny."
"A fruity jobby on a hot summer's breeze." (My favourite).
Jilly Goolden, that barmy doyenne of flavour discerning, once said Irn-Bru tasted like "bubblegum, wet sheep fleece, barley sugar and plastic," and I'd be inclined to agree. The flavour is parasitical. It squats in your mouth for hours. Then the burps appear. Once, at school, we had a game of burp tennis that lasted a full forty minutes, only ending because lunch break was over.
Irn-Bru, for any Scottish person of a certain age, tastes like being a teenager. It's the taste of walking through damp streets, waiting for something to happen, of all the funny things that happened that were only funny then and there, to me and my friends. It's the taste of a million anecdotes that exist only in memory—much like that shitty ham sandwich at the Miner's Gala. I don't need to drink a can of Irn-Bru to taste it (although did for the sake of editorial clarity writing this piece), because it's right there. It's always there. Made from Girders. In Scotland.
Irn-Bru isn't just a drink. It's part of the tapestry of our existence. It made me who I am.