It is Scotland’s other national drink and made in Cumbernauld, but new research has found that iron brew drinks were first sold in the USA.
David Leishman, a senior lecturer in English at Grenoble Alpes University in France, believes from his investigations that Iron Brew was sold in the States, that an English firm created the strongman image known as Barr’s “Highland athlete” and that Barr’s started selling their product in 1898, three years earlier than officially stated.
David said: “I was a bit apprehensive about announcing some of these findings to AG Barr plc, particularly the fact that the strongman was invented by an English firm! Robin Barr and marketing director Johnathan Kemp were extremely helpful though, allowing me access to the company’s own archives, answering questions and undertaking their own research as a result of my findings.”
David’s article claims that the world’s first carbonated Iron Brew was launched in 1889. Named Ironbrew, this was made by New York chemicals firm Maas and Waldstein who advertised it as “The ideal American drink”.
The first British company to sell Iron Brew was the London firm Stevenson and Howell, who launched their product in the summer of 1898, selling a concentrated essence of the drink to various bottling plants. They registered a trademark for the image of a strongman holding aloft a glass surrounded by weights and dumbbells, which they featured on labels and promotional materials they sent to their customers. This image was used by Barr’s and became identified with Adam Brown, an athlete from Shotts.
A search of local history archives in Falkirk found an advert for Barr’s Iron Brew dated from 1900, a year before the official launch date. Robin Barr found an order for one million Iron Brew Bottles from Stevenson and Howell in 1899. However Robin Barr insists that Barr’s never purchased the Iron Brew essence from Stevenson and Howell and has always mixed its own product to a recipe it invented.
David continues: “In recent decades Barr’s have never claimed to be the inventor of Iron Brew drinks, but I wanted to dispel some of the urban myths surrounding the origins of the drink to better understand how it became associated with Scottish identity. My father was from Falkirk and was a big local history enthusiast with a special interest in Barr’s. so I suppose the idea for this project came from him. It’s incredible to see that Barr’s Iron Brew was already having a big impact in Scotland at a time when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.”
The article also gives some fresh insight into the unique spelling of “Irn-Bru”. With “Iron Brew” considered a generic term that could not be trademarked, Barr’s instead registered “Irn-Bru” in 1946 to build on their “Adventures of Ba-Bru” advertising campaign which had run throughout World War 2. Although unable to sell their product for most of the war due to government rationalization of the soft drinks industry, they had never stopped advertising. In 1948, after the wartime regulations had been lifted, Barr’s sold their first bottles of Irn-Bru.