America imports more Irish cream than any other country. Of the 7.5 million cases sold in 2017, we bought 1.9 million. That’s 25 percent of the world’s Irish cream in a given year.

We like it so much that two young companies recently decided to gamble on our thirst, introducing Irish Cream-proximate products that marry certain craft tenets (transparency, lower sugar, regional character) with our proven enthusiasm for boozy butterfat. Five Farms Irish Cream and Nooku Bourbon Cream distill and blend their next-generation craft creams in Ireland’s County Cork and Colorado, respectively. Together, they’re bringing some street cred to the style.

“The lack of a craft Irish cream was a gap in the category,” Mick Harris, president, McCormick Distilling Co., says. He co-created Five Farms in coordination with veteran Irish drinks pro Johnny Harte, who’s just now starting to push Five Farms in Ireland. “We saw a large and established category that has not seen a lot of innovation.” Whether there’s room, or really interest, in innovation is the next gaping question. Nooku and Five Farms are hoping that answer is yes — and are ready to duke it out for your favor.

Five Farms features whiskey from Ireland’s Middleton distillery and milk from a 500-strong Irish dairy cooperative. Credit: Fivefarmsirishcream.com

They share a formidable opponent. Bailey’s, a.k.a. “Big Irish Cream,” accounted for 92 percent of all Irish cream sales in 2017. For most Americans, Bailey’s isn’t the Irish cream category leader; it is the category.

No surprise both Nooku and Five Farms have creatively aggressive (aggressively creative?) marketing and expansion plans for 2019. So which do you save room for? Well, that depends on what kind of artisanal liqueur void you’re looking to fill.

Nooku Bourbon Cream, made by Old Elk Distillery in Fort Collins, Colo., is a homegrown upstart, positioning itself on the charred-oak-aged backbone of all-American bourbon.

“What we found was there was a big gap in the ‘cordial liqueur’ category,” Luis Gonzalez, CEO, Old Elk Distillery, says. “It was very seasonal. We wanted to bring more of an evergreen product, year-round, really innovate a whole new category.”

Innovation is great and all, but there are also practical reasons Nooku isn’t calling itself Irish cream. Irish creams are protected as a Geographic Indication (GI) and “must be produced on the island of Ireland in accordance with strict technical specifications.” In fact, the Irish Spirits Association (ISA) is currently dealing with Canadian liqueurs “claiming to be Irish cream but without a single connection to Ireland.” (Come on, Canada.) In March 2018, ISA president William Lavelle told The Independent, “It’s about protecting those dairy farmers across Ireland who provide our industry with over 316 million litres of cream every year.”

Complicating things further, liqueurs are, by definition, flavored and sweetened. Nooku is — adamantly — neither. It’s more of a rugged, Colorado bourbon-meets-milk concoction that took home 86 points at the 2018 Ultimate Spirits Challenge and just so happens to remind you a bit of Irish cream. Really, though, the stuff is sufficiently unusual that “a specialty spirits subcategory was created specifically for the product that we put forward,” Gonzalez says. They’re literally category-defying: “Our classification is actually ‘real bourbon with real dairy cream.’”

Pressed for more intel on the ingredients, Gonzalez only spoke about the spirit, a two-year-old variant of the company’s Old Elk Bourbon, which is typically aged four years. “The mash bill is 51 percent corn, 34 percent malted barley, 15 percent rye,” Gonzalez says, noting the higher proportion of malted barley as a key component in Old Elk’s smoother, rounder taste. All he’ll tell me about the company’s dairy partner is they’re “well known.”

The name I do get from Gonzalez is a big one: Greg Metze. For 38 years, Metze was the master distiller for MGP, the mega Indiana distillery that rather controversially produces the non-Kentucky spirit in such power players as Rebel Yell, Widow Jane, Bulleit, and Templeton. Metze suddenly departed MGP in 2016, and Nooku snatched him up.

American-made Nooku is positioning itself on the charred-oak-aged backbone of bourbon. Credit: Nookubourboncream.com

Where Nooku has Metze and marketing, Five Farms is going full-throttle Irish. Yes, the self-described “Single Batch Irish Cream Liqueur” is imported by McCormick Distilling Co. in Weston, Mo., but it trades on all things Eire, promoting the Irish provenance of both its whiskey and milk. (This is easily the only instance in all of craft drinking where the “single batch”on the label refers to dairy, not alcohol.)

Five Farms’ primary challenge is reinventing a historically less hip product while remaining true to its origins. The company plans to do so by focusing on the caliber of the ingredients, hinging on the very true fact that no less than a 500-strong dairy cooperative provides the cream for Five Farms, which is carefully collected and lovingly married to some lovely Irish whiskey within 48 hours.

According to Harris, Five Farms originally wanted to go even craftier. “At its inception, the idea was to use the cream from a single cow,” he says. The concept evolved organically from there, with brand developers asking themselves, “What would it look like to create an upper-premium Irish liqueur with a lot of differentiating points,” Noelle Hale, Five Farms’ communications director, says.

One distinguishing factor is Five Farms’ triple-distilled Irish whiskey. “The whiskey is from Midleton,” Hale says, referring to the massive Cork operation that just so happens to distill for Jameson and several other more blended Irish whiskeys. “That’s as much as I can say about it on the record.”

Five Farms can tell you it’s the only distillery that uses 10 percent Irish whiskey in every 750-milliliter bottle (other brands, says Harris, “use a thimbleful,” getting to the retail-ready 17 percent ABV with neutral grain spirit). “When we were experimenting with the amount we put in the bottle, you wanted a balance between whiskey and sweetness,” Hale says. The company tried different proportions, going up to 15 percent whiskey until deciding on 10 percent “as a sweet spot,” says Hale. “At some point, if it’s too whiskey-forward, you’re losing some of the sweetness of a cream liqueur.”

As for that sweetness, it “comes primarily from the cream,” Harris says, well aware of the growing market for low-sugar-anything (“Keep Calm and Keto On”). Additional flavor comes courtesy of Madagascar vanilla, and style points come from what can only be called sexy-quaint package design.

Make no mistake, Five Farms and Nooku are ready to earn your dollar. When they first launched stateside in December 2017, Five Farms was happy to discover Missouri had “two of the three largest Irish festivals in the country,” Hale says. “We had tastings, [we] were available for purchase at the bars. We were really making our debut to a lot of people.” The method worked. Add 25-plus states to distribution in 2018 and fast forward to now, and Five Farms “[has] a similar [thing] going on with the Irish Cultural Center of New England up in Boston,” Hale says. “That’s a big one.”

Nooku is expanding at a similar rate. It debuted in November 2017 and expects to be in 34 states by the end of March. Last winter, the company released a peppermint Nooku. “We add a very low volume of peppermint extract,” says Gonzalez, and nothing else. It was a hit, and the company plans to conservatively introduce new flavors and even regional- or state-specific variants.

As much as marketing seems to outpace reality these days (my Facebook self is thriving, thriving!), both Nooku and Five Farms are marrying their artisanal sizzle with quality steak. The companies have done their homework, and are ready to take on everything from consumer misconceptions to competition to the weather.

“It’s really much more of a summer drink for people than we would have anticipated,” Hale insists. “At the Kansas City Irish Fest on Labor Day weekend, it was very hot and humid, and yet the response was unbelievable. We were the No. 1-selling drink.” Sweet milky booze might have a home in your Fourth of July picnic.

“You saw these people in the sweltering heat walking around with a cream liqueur on ice,” Hale says.

Move over, frosé.