Why are ice cream cones with a flake named 99s?

It's perhaps the most nostalgic summer time treat, enjoyed all across Britain for decades, but why are ice cream cones with a flake in them called 99s?

Published 24th Apr 2019
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

The classic treat of British seaside holidays and the favourite of generations of children, the '99' cone is as ubiquitous as sun cream and sand castles.

But where did the name come from?

Defined as an "ice-cream cone made with soft ice cream with a stick of flaky chocolate inserted into it", it has been claimed it was originally a marketing term coined by Cadbury's, as the original ice cream cones where the name would have came from contained a '99' Flake (produced specially for the ice-cream trade by the chocolate makers).

Indeed, the the first printed reference to the 99 is in 1935 from a Cadbury's price list which mentions the special '99' Flake tagged  as for use by the "Ice Cream Trade".

This was then followed up a year later by an advert that read "Try a '99' ice cream with Cadbury's Dairy Milk Flake chocolate".

An episode of Balderdash and Piffle, which was originally shown on BBC 2 and features the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary asking the public for help to find the origins of words and phrases, posited that this was the most likely origin of the term.

Other theories included the idea that the phrase originally came from Scots-Italian ice cream makers and café owners using the '99' appellation to describe something as top drawer, a nod to an elite guard of 99 soldiers in the service of an unnamed Italian king.

Another theory that gained a little traction is the idea that the name comes from the fact that IC, the initials of ice cream, is a shortened from of XCIX - the Roman numerals for 99.

The claims that it could be something to do with price or length have both been rubbished by nearly all of the people who have researched the history.

Perhaps though the origins lie a little closer to home - an ice cream maker from Edinburgh claims the popular treat was invented in Portobello by her grandfather.

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The Acaris, whose patriarch, Stephen, set up the family business in 1922 before passing it on to his son Rudi, say they sold 99s more than ten years before the first recorded Cadbury's usage - and that the ice-cream was named after the address of the family's shop at number 99 Portobello High Street.

• READ MORE: End of an era as ‘99’ ice cream pioneer dies

Granddaughter Tanya took over the business from her father Rudi and runs their factory at The Wisp after the original shop on Portobello High Street closed in 2005 after more than 80 years in business.

She said that her grandfather invented the 99 after he broke a large Flake in half and stuck it into an ice-cream – to the delight of a visiting rep from Cadbury, who, according to Tanya's father Rudi, then took the idea to his boss.

Mr Arcari saw no harm in this and gave his permission, but his involvement in the famous cone was never acknowledged.

In 2011, local residents even launched The Free The Porty 99 campaign pushing for Cadbury to fund a giant ice-cream cone statue on the promenade and a plaque mounted at the shop where it is believed to have been created.

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The confectionery giants have always stuck to their guns on the issue, in 2011 they told the Scotsman: “In the days of the monarchy in Italy, the king has a specially chosen guard consisting of 99 men, and subsequently anything really special or first class was known as ‘99’ – and that his how ‘99’ Flake came by its name."

However, though there is no denying they were one of the pioneering users of the name, this explanation for its use has since been proved false by the aforementioned research from the Balderdash and Piffle team.

With no proof to back the rival claim from the Acari family - and though the term '99' was reportedly in use before the 1930s - it seems that Cadbury's claim to be the originators of the term currently remains the most steadfast.

• READ MORE: Gemma Fraser: Portobello’s claim to 99 fame takes some licking

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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