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When you’re pouring 500 Irish car bombs every night, it’s natural to look for a shortcut. That was the situation at Colm O’Neill’s now-closed Boulder pub, Conor O’Neill’s, where Thursday nights once meant a tidal wave of college students clamoring for lots (and lots) of the distinctly American shots of Irish cream—typically Baileys—and whiskey dropped into a glass of Guinness Stout. “Bartenders said they needed a pre-made version [of the shot] to make their lives easier. And seven years later, the idea still tortured me,” says O’Neill, whose brand—Colorado Pub Company—also owns Casey’s Bistro and Pub in Stapleton, Lansdowne Arms in Highlands Ranch, and Darcy’s in the DTC.
Even when Conor O’Neill’s closed in April 2017, Irish cream was still on O’Neill’s mind. He wondered why every similar product on the market was only 17 percent ABV, not much stronger than wine. If there was a more potent version, bartenders could skip the whiskey mixing and just pour the higher-proof Irish cream into the Guinness, saving time and energy.
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So O’Neill set out to make his own higher-ABV liqueur. To solve the shelf-stability issue of adding more alcohol to the cream without causing it to curdle, he worked on the recipe with a chemist in Boulder before sending it to a distillery in Ireland for tinkering to perfection. It took years to develop a recipe that worked at the higher proof (50, compared to the standard 34), had the desired consistency, and still tasted great.
The result is Hard Chaw Strong Irish Whiskey Cream, named after the Irish slang term for a guy or gal who’s a tough cookie. It’s the first 25 percent ABV Irish cream on the market, developed here in Boulder but produced in Ireland. (Just as Champagne has to be made in that region of France, Irish cream must be made in Ireland.) “You feel like you actually have a cocktail, not just dessert in a glass,” O’Neill says. “It’s Baileys with a kick.”
To give Hard Chaw that extra punch, O’Neill uses both Irish whiskey and poitín (or potcheen), reminiscent to an Irish moonshine. Potcheen was distilled on farms across Ireland for centuries before the government outlawed it in 1661, citing its difficulty to tax. The ban was finally lifted in 1997 and Irish distillers have embraced the underground spirit since, crafting modern versions of the ancient libation. O’Neill knew for sure that he wanted to use this hard chaw of the Irish spirit world in his blend.
Hard Chaw, which sells for $20 to $25 a bottle, officially launched in late 2020 and is currently available at area liquor stores (and temporarily closed) pubs along the Front Range. Colorado may be an odd choice for the exclusive distribution of Irish cream, but it was an easy pick for O’Neill. “We’ve lived here 20 years, so we wanted to launch it here.”