This winter, skip the eggnog and pour out glasses of cold Irish cream, the real stuff, thanks to Hard Chaw, a new Irish whiskey cream currently being sold only in Colorado. Even though Hard Chaw is made in Ireland, not even its home country gets to enjoy the punchy tipple.
"The feedback has been extremely positive," says Hard Chaw founder Colm O’Neill. "We figured if we can make a go in Colorado, there's hope for us somewhere else."
O'Neill was a Gaelic football player back in Ireland and, even though he doesn't consider himself a heavy drinker, has been around alcohol most of his life. His father, grandfather and brother all worked for the Jameson bottling plant in Cork, Ireland, but O'Neill chose the path of a CPA — that is, until he moved to Colorado and began opening Irish pubs.
The path to Hard Chaw started in Boulder seven years ago at the now shuttered Conor O'Neill's, one of the bars O’Neill ran with his partners under the moniker Colorado Pub Company (along with Casey's Bistro & Pub in Stapleton, Lansdowne Arms in Highlands Ranch and Darcy's in the Denver Tech Center). A bartender at Conor O'Neill's questioned why there wasn't a bottle on the market that captured the creamy spice of a Car Bomb, the unfortunately named drink made with Guinness, Baileys Irish Cream and Jameson. (Although the Car Bomb wasn't invented in Ireland, Americans knock shots of it back at Irish pubs, especially on Saint Patrick's Day, as if it were an Éire staple.)
O’Neill, an Irishman himself, isn't too fond of the Car Bomb, but he thought there had to be a way to make Irish cream pack more of a punch. Mixing equal parts Irish whiskey and Baileys has long been known as a Shillelagh shot, but it's not shelf-stable. So O’Neill started researching ways he could make something creamy, tasty and boozy to sell by the bottle.
First he went to a chemist in Boulder to try and re-create a recipe he found. "It was extremely difficult to nail down," he says. "I finally had to send it to a guy in Ireland who had made it work."
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After much experimentation, he cracked the code for his Irish cream two years ago with the help of a distiller in Ireland. The secret was potcheen, a traditional Irish moonshine made from potatoes, malted barley or crab apples. O’Neill's potcheen is grain-based, as is the Irish whiskey that's also part of the mix. The result has a higher alcohol content than other Irish creams on the market.
That led to the birth of Hard Chaw, named for the Irish term for a real tough nut, like the bare-knuckle fighter depicted on the bottle. O’Neill originally wanted to name the product Shillelagh, but after realizing Americans wouldn't be able to easily read or pronounce the name, he changed it for good. After all, the U.S. was his target market, and his adopted home of Colorado, where he's lived for more than twenty years and raised six kids with his wife, was where he planned to launch the Irish-made product.
"We also went with a tall white bottle to look different, since in the glass you can't tell the difference," he says, adding that the label also sports the Irish colors. "But once you taste it..."
O'Neill is right: Hard Chaw stands out from sweeter commercially made Irish creams. He suggests taking a sip, not a shot, of the velvety smooth spirit to understand that his Irish cream isn't just meant to be slammed, diluted with coffee or mixed into college-style shooters. At 50 proof (25 percent alcohol by volume), Hard Chaw proves refined and elegant, a fun surprise for anyone who likes to get their dessert in boozy form. At around $25 a bottle, it's reasonably priced, too: You can find it at Argonaut Wine & Liquor (760 East Colfax Avenue), Mile High Wine & Spirits (435 South Vance Street in Lakewood), and Hazel's Beverage World (1955 28th Street in Boulder).