Irn-Bru: the surprising and secretive history of Scotland's 'other national drink'

Published 10th Jul 2019
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

The true birthplace of Irn-Bru, the alarmingly orange, quintessentially Scottish soft drink, is hotly contested - and potentially not Scottish at all.

Barr’s, the soft drink manufacturers with the biggest claim over the drink Scots know and love today, list the official launch date for “Irn-Bru” as 1901.

However, drinks under the moniker “Iron Brew” appear in records before this, with London-based manufacturers Stevenson & Howell, for instance, launching a beverage under this name in 1898.

Going back even further, the very earliest claim on the drink comes not from Scotland, nor even the UK, but from New York chemicals company Maas & Waldstein, who first used the name “IRONBREW” to sell their beverage commercially in August 1889.

If you accept this as the first iteration of “Irn-Bru,” it means the drink is set to celebrate its 130th birthday this year.

A timeline of Barr's Irn-Bru designs starting in 1901. Picture: Contributed.

Like the Austrian origins of the croissant or the Portugese home of Vindaloo, the birthplace of Irn-Bru may come as a surprise to some.

Yet it’s this fact that makes the story of Irn-Bru all the more remarkable. Edging out giants like Coca Cola in Scotland as well as establishing itself as “national drink” and emblem of national Scottish pride, Irn-Bru’s success is one of the most impressive marketing feats a soft drinks company has ever pulled off.

The secret recipe

Naturally, the “medical tonic” Iron Brew drink first produced in America over a century ago bears little relation to the concoction that sits on today’s supermarket shelves.

The drink was originally thought to have been a dark colour with a vanilla taste, closer to cola than today’s distinctive sweet-but-metallic flavour. It wasn’t long before other companies followed suit with similar “Iron Brew” drinks.

original recipe Irn-Bru

'Original recipe' Irn-Bru on sale for £5.99. Picture: SWNS

It was Barr’s, however, that hit upon the magic 32-flavour recipe in 1901, a secret so preciously guarded that a mere three people currently know the complete ingredients list: Irn-Bru’s former chairman Robin Barr, his daughter Julie Barr and a director.

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It’s even rumoured that the recipe is locked deep inside a Switzerland vault to keep it from the prying eyes of competitors.

Iron Brew to Irn-Bru

From the get-go, Barr’s found marketing success by closely associating Irn-Bru with the idea of Scottishness. Early branding used a “strongman” logo based on popular Highland Games athlete Adam Brown; an emblem that would remain in use well into the early 2000’s.

Barr’s were forced to change their original “Iron Brew” name to “Irn-Bru” after a 1946 change in the law stipulated that branding had to be “literally true,” (Iron Brew did not contain much iron nor was brewed) but the drink’s association with strength and athleticism had already stuck.

Later on, a popular comic strip titled “The Adventures of Ba-Bru” published in newspapers promoted the drink, and in the 1980s the now-famous ad campaign branded the drink with the slogan “Made in Scotland from Girders,” referencing Irn-Bru’s rusty colour and linking the drink to Glasgow's shipbuilding industry and Scotland's engineering heritage.


It wasn't always called Irn-Bru. Picture: TSPL

Unknown to many, the drink does actually contain 0.002 per cent ammonium ferric citrate listed among its ingredients – a food additive containing iron hydroxide.

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Irn-Bru also cashed in on its colour association with the disproportionate number of ginger people in Scotland - currently the highest in the world. One of the company’s most recent adverts, titled “Ginger and Proud,” encourages the nation’s redheads to be proud of their distinctive hair colouring.

It's a testament to the success of these marketing campaigns that Irn-Bru is able to confidently declare itself Scotland’s “Other National Drink” - as they did on a billboard above Glasgow Central Station in 1983 - to little objection.


The brand has also been the subject of controversy over the years - though this in itself has often led to a boost in Irn-Bru’s visibility.

A Irn-Bru poster which featured a cow and the slogan “When I’m a burger I want to be washed down with Irn-Bru” once received 700 complaints, while another advert showing a young women in a bikini holding a can and saying: “I never knew four-and-a-half-inches could give so much pleasure” was also the subject of controversy.

Another risqué ad featured a newborn chick and the slogan: “There is nothing better than Irn- Bru when you’ve just been laid.”

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controversial Irn-Bru ads

Outside of its advertising campaigns, one of Irn-Bru’s most recent controversies has been a change in its recipe after the introduction of the “sugar tax” in 2018.

The change has seen the drink’s sugar content halved - and many fans of Irn-Bru have been less than happy about the shift.

One Dundee bar even recently held an Irn-Bru “funeral” to commemorate getting to the last of their “original recipe” cans.

In spite of this, Irn-Bru’s popularity doesn’t look set to wane anytime soon, with a reported 20 cans of the orange stuff sold by Barr’s every second.

Along with tartan, Nessie and bagpipes, this distinctive orange drink has firmly established itself as a symbol of Scotland - and all that’s great about it.

Read more on Irn-Bru:

A brief history of Irn-Bru’s most controversial adverts

16 things you (probably) didn’t know about Irn-Bru

Video: How to make Irn-Bru shortbread

The story of Irn Bru’s rise to global prominence

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