This past Halloween, I was drinking Guinness at a Dublin pub called The Gravediggers, set into the outer wall of a cemetery. Jet-lagged and full of beef-and-Guinness stew, I started to fade after one beer, so my friend Sal suggested a pint of black currant—concentrated black currant cordial added to water, a popular nonalcoholic option in this part of the world. Back from the dead after one sip, I was intrigued by what Sal said next: “You know, some people put black currant in their Guinness.”
Guinness & Black, Black & Black, or simply Guinness & Black Currant is a distinctive pour of Ireland’s favorite beer with a purple-hued head, a complicated entry in the Guinness cocktail canon. With a bittersweet taste, like a mouthful of cold brew with toast and jam, or Black Forest cherry cake washed down with black coffee, Guinness & Black is almost a shandy—but there’s nothing light or summery about it. True shandies, those made with lager and lemonade, might call to mind a day at the beach, but sometimes it’s Halloween at an Irish cemetery. And sometimes a drink is so delicious but divisive, you’re scared to actually order it.
“It’s not that popular,” says Anthony Malone, the man who likely made my first Guinness & Black, at his pub, Walsh’s, in Stoneybatter. “There’s no big deal when people ask for it—it’s people starting off before they drink Guinness, just to get used to the taste, or ladies, to take the bitterness out of it,” he adds. “But they do normally ‘wean off,’ as we say.”
The stereotype doesn’t just pertain to gender. “It’s mostly a tourist call, not too many locals or Irish people drink it,” another publican, Enda Keogh of old-school Peter’s Pub by Stephen’s Green, tells me, likely noting my American accent. “Our Guinness is lovely as it is; you don’t need to go adding black currant to it.”
I have been visiting Ireland for a decade, the first time specifically to research Guinness for an ethnography of the Guinness Storehouse. I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible I’ve spent more time at the Storehouse than any other non-employee—and I’d never heard of Guinness & Black until this, my eighth trip to the island. How could it be a “tourist call” if tourists have to be this immersed to find out about it?
“When I first started working for Guinness, almost 20 years ago, we were asked for it quite a bit, particularly from U.K. tourists,” says Padraig Fox, Guinness’ global brand ambassador, “so it seemed to be really popular over there.” I know from my time researching Guinness that the brand takes its history seriously, so I thought Fox might have more answers about the drink’s origins. “We did a little bit of research into this, and we genuinely can’t find any written thing in our archives about the creation of it,” he says, “but anecdotally it seems to have become a thing in the 1970s.”
It also seems to have originated in the U.K., and its proliferation in British pubs today—clear from even a quick search on social media—nods to a nearly 50-year history. The one piece of evidence Fox’s inquiry turned up was a handout given to U.K. bartenders by Guinness in 1976. The lead sentence reads, “People are experimenting with black currant in their beverages, and Guinness is no different.” Back across the Irish Sea, this time stamp coincides with a major change in Irish drinking culture.
“Women wouldn’t have been served a pint in a pub until really the ’70s,” says Aoife Carrigy, a Dublin-based food and drinks writer. “If you wanted to drink a pint, you’d have to order two [half-pint] glasses,” she adds. For Carrigy, who came of drinking age around the late ’80s and early ’90s, “having a pint of Guinness was a real leveler,” she explains, a way of emphasizing burgeoning gender equality at the pub. “You didn’t want to have the [half-pint] glass, and you certainly didn’t want to be putting black currant in it,” she says.
One of Carrigy’s friends, she tells me, remembers her dad adding black currant to her Guinness when she first started drinking, saying, “Try a little bit of this in it like the ladies do, it’ll be nicer for you.” This reputation seems to have persisted up to the present day—and while Ireland is more socially progressive than ever, stereotypes like this do live on, to a degree, in its drinking culture.
Nonetheless, though Guinness & Black “definitely is gendered,” as Carrigy says, bartenders aren’t as judgmental about those who enjoy the combination. “If you want a dash of black currant, you can always put it in,” Keogh, of Peter’s Pub, eventually concedes. “But definitely taste it before you put it in, and see if you still want it.”
Fox, from Guinness, shares the same sentiment. “Pour the perfect pint first, and then obviously there’s an opportunity, like, ‘Are you sure, now? You want me to add black currant?’” For those who do take black currant, bartenders will typically top off the pint with a customized dash—a “tell me when” sort of thing. As such, there isn’t really a recipe. But there’s a general rule of thumb: “Tiny, tiny, tiny,” says Malone, of Walsh’s. “Just a small little dash.”
In Ireland, at least, I seem to be an anomaly: a tourist, albeit at this point fairly well-versed in Irish culture, who genuinely likes Guinness, doesn’t identify as a woman, has been of legal drinking age for over a decade, and sometimes—why not?—also appreciates a dash of black currant. I especially like it as “dessert” after a couple regular pints, and in a half-pint glass.
One always wants to make a good impression, especially with affable Irish bartenders, so it can be intimidating to order a drink seen by many as a beer with training wheels, or—god forbid—a “ladies’ drink.” Over and over, I was told that it’s rare for “Guinness drinkers” to drink Guinness & Black, which again, is Guinness, with only a tiny drop of something else.
Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider, but I don’t see things as quite so black and white. If Guinness & Black sounds good (and it really is good), there’s no reason to let its reputation stand in your way. My research paper on Guinness argued that it’s the only national, brand-specific, ingestible Barthesian synecdoche in the world. Or in simpler terms, that to consume Guinness is to consume Ireland. Is this still true with a drop of black currant? It depends which version of Ireland you want to consume.
Pictured: Hynes' Bar