Miniature monster – Frank McNally on the fall and rise of the “baby Guinness”

A shot in the dark

At a Dublin bar counter on Saturday night, I watched yet another group of young tourists order a round of “Baby Guinnesses” and wondered how the all-powerful brewery thereby referenced had ever allowed this phenomenon to take off.

In case you haven’t been out this century, the baby Guinness is a “shot” drink comprising three parts coffee liqueur – usually Kahlua or Tia Maria – and one part (the top one) Bailey’s Irish Cream.

It’s a miniature visual tribute to the famous pint of stout. And it costs about the same: €6.40 in this case. But of actual Guinness, it contains none.

And all right, Baileys is part of the Diageo stable now, so big beer is getting some of the action here. Even so, three quarters of this ever-more lucrative trade is going elsewhere than the direction advertised in the name.

The brand larceny is all the more blatant because, long before the shot so described was invented, the term “Baby Guinness” was indeed used for some of the brewery’s output.

Not to be confused with “Baby Power” (the miniature whiskey), it referred – I think – to a half-pint bottle. At any rate, in an Irish Times food column of 1959, the female writer gives a recipe for Christmas pudding involving a “baby Guinness” and jokes: “A baby Guinness is also very good for the cook!”

With a somewhat different sense, the expression also featured in the headline of a 1907 Dublin court case in which a pub on Francis Street was charged with a breach of Sunday closing.

There were no miniatures involved on that occasion. The court heard that a woman had knocked three times at the pub’s side door and shouted in: “It’s all right, Patsey is watching at the corner.”

The door subsequently opened and a jar of porter emerged, which the woman was advised to hide under her shawl and, if anyone asked, to say it was a baby. “A baby Guinness”, quipped the prosecuting counsel. (“Laughter in court”).

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That lawyer’s joke was doubly apt, because not only can the St James’s Gate brewery claim paternity on the “baby Guinness” name, it has had a long and somewhat notorious association with maternity too.

By an impure coincidence, the London Times ran a feature recently on the continuing success of actual Guinness (“It’s boom time for the black stuff”), which has since inspired a series of nostalgic letters.

One was from a Margaret James-Moore, a retired medic, who recalled her younger days in Ireland:

“Guinness used to send crates of small bottles for nursing mothers at the maternity hospital in Dublin in 1963. Every evening we resident junior doctors went round the wards collecting the many unused bottles. A very welcome perk.”

This lends a certain piquancy to one of the theories about how the Guinness-free “baby Guinness” originated. According to an unsourced Wikipedia entry, the cocktail can be traced back to the 1980s/90s and a now-defunct Dublin pub The Waxies’ Dargle.

That was on Granby Row, just up the street from the Rotunda. And as the story goes, its in-house coffee and cream liqueur, called “baby Guinness”, was by tradition offered to expectant or new parents.

If this is true, the success of a cocktail named for but not benefiting the brewery may be posterity’s revenge on the era when stout was promoted as a health drink, even in maternity hospitals. As with many unplanned offspring, perhaps, Guinness’s wild oats have come back to haunt it.

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I read a funny thing in a book about literary Dublin recently.

A Writer’s City by Chris Morash is a geographically arranged survey of the capital’s literature. And in one chapter, it mentions that although JM Synge was born in 1871 in Rathfarnham, he and his mother moved to Rathgar in 1882.

Their new house was “about ten minutes’ easy stroll from where [James] Joyce was born that same year at Brighton Square,” the book says, rightly. Then it makes this remarkable claim: “There is every chance that, as infants, they passed one another in their perambulators.”

By my reckoning, Synge was nearly 11 at the time of Joyce’s birth. And if he was still in a perambulator then, we would surely have heard more about it from the literary critics.

Maybe even the precocious Joyce would have recalled how they used to pass on the footpath and throw soothers at each other. The grotesque spectacle of a pre-teen Synge in a pram might have lent new meaning to the term A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

If it were true too, the Playboy playwright’s post-infancy perambulations would surely also have been commemorated in Dublin by the name of a drink.

Sooner or later, somebody would have gone into an off-license and asked knowingly for a “J.M. Synge”. “A what?” the helpless assistant would have replied. Whereupon the know-all customer would point to the miniature Midleton Redbreasts, or whatever, and clarify: “A baby 12-year-old, please.”

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