The “First” Draft Guinness in North America

The expansion of the Irish pub internationally has attracted the attention of the press (e.g., New York Times, 1976), beer media, academics (e.g., Kevin Martin’s stimulating Irish pub history), and of course entrepreneurs. A Thrillist piece in 2014 by Dave Infante illustrates the general beer/food/travel press take.

My interest, initially, was not so much the Irish pub in America but when nitrogen-dispense Guinness first appeared. I mean, the draught Guinness that replaced naturally-conditioned Guinness, or real ale if you will, after the mid-1960s in Ireland.

One can’t meaningfully separate both questions, so I will deal with both.

The first appearance Stateside of modern draft Guinness seems unstudied. I’ve examined it, and concluded it was in 1965, in St. Louis, Missouri.

An article that year in the Advocate, an Irish-American weekly based in New York, stated:

For three years beginning Sept.13th draught Guinness will be sold in Famous-Barr, well known St. Louis, Missouri department store. This will be the first time Guin­ness is sold on draught in the U.S. If the experiment proves successful, it will be introduced in other parts of the country where bottled Guinness is now sold. A special Irish pub, now being built on the second floor of the well known store as part of a store-wide Irish promotion, will serve the famous stout. The draught Guinness and the dis­pensing equipment in a unique Guin­ness design are being shipped es­pecially from Dublin, the stout being contained in special casks. Harp Lager beer, Guinness’s only other product, first brewed by the 206-year-old Guinness in 1960, will be on sale in the bar, as well as in the sixth floor restaurant, where Guinness will also be sold in the bottle.

At first blush, why St. Louis, and not New York, or Boston? I think Guinness was cautious, chastened by the failure of its American brewery in Long Island between 1949 and 1954. Rather than test its new dispense in New York or Boston, it tried a Midwest location. It’s a frequent gambit of marketers to choose a regional or off-piste location for a new product.

That said, St. Louis has always had a strong Irish component, so it didn’t hurt, certainly. That St. Louis was anchor of the Anheuser-Busch empire was probably coincidental. All American cities then were dominated by light adjunct lagers. There was no dig to the Buschs, I think, but just the interest to find a good beer town in which to deploy the black stuff.

In the last 30 years the design, fabrication, assembly, and shipment worldwide of the stock Irish pub was perfected. It has been commodified by large business. Before that, the neighbourhood Irish pub in America meant something different.

It was a real, living thing, often serving expat circles or American communities still marked by Hibernian culture. This is evident from reading the Advocate of the 1960s-1970s.

These bars attested to the close links between Irish-Americans, local organs like the Advocate in which the bars often advertised, and Guinness Brewery. The Advocate often carried pieces on the doings of Guinness, here and in Ireland.

This included the launch in 1960 of Harp lager, an event that received no little attention in its pages, but also things like the Guinness strike of the early 1970s.

In a word, the Irish pub here before the new wave version took over was genuine and organic: it nourished an authentic, living community. The pubs were designed and built here, not Irish pre-fab, and poured the local taps before draft Guinness became available. They were no less Irish for that because what made them Irish was the people.

From the 1960s onwards, in North America and elsewhere outside Ireland, the packaging and commercialization of the Irish pub started in earnest. The Hunter’s Horn in 1960s Montreal was an early example. Below are extracts from its menu, and related documents, from archives of Montreal’s McCord Museum.



What we see was not an organic outgrowth of an Irish-Canadian community. It was more than that, and carefully planned using modern business techniques, given too its downtown location which served largely a business and media clientele.

One can probably identify four stages of Irish pub in North America. First, the one described by Infante where an immigrant Irishman put up his sign on a pub that otherwise was local in design and atmosphere (yet he doesn’t in my opinion credit these with enough Irish character).

Famed McSorley’s Old Ale House is a good example in New York, but there were thousands more, including in Toronto.

Second, there was the semi-commercialized Irish pub, set up in the wake of a pub exhibit at a trade fair, or simply the vision of an astute businessperson or two. This was the Hunter’s Horn, in my opinion.

The English pub of the 1960s-1990s was a similar idea, with its Victorian-inspired flock wallpaper, banquettes, and cut glass, or mid-1900s cultural emblems like red phone booths and bobby helmets. Sometimes these were small chains, restricted to one city or region.

Third was the brilliant turn-key system pioneered in 1990 by Guinness/Diageo and its numerous competitors, as chronicled by Infante. The result was thousands of modular Irish pubs around the world, from Paris to Peking. A sophisticated business, to which draft Guinness was essential.

Last, there was and is the craft type of Irish pub. Allen’s in Toronto and the Dora Keogh bar adjacent are pioneers in Ontario. There is an Irish influence, often in the menu and drinks, but it’s not patent and doesn’t descend in kitsch.

Each of these bars serves a distinct market and has its place.

It’s all grist for further study, it really is. Some academic writers hold for example that the music sessions of Irish pubs, considered quintessentially Irish in nature and copied around the world in any sort of Irish pub, were really a 1960s development, sparked largely by the American folk revival.

Spontaneous singing was genuinely local, or a fiddler, but multi-member touring bands playing Celtic music in pubs is thought by some a more recent development.

N.B. Draught Guinness of the pre-nitrogen dispense kind was certainly available in parts of America before Prohibition. The 1965 Advocate piece didn’t mention that, if the journalist ever knew, but the context was the first modern draft Guinness in America.

Note re images: Extracts and images above are used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.




2 thoughts on “The “First” Draft Guinness in North America”

  1. I’m enjoying your writing here. It is bringing up some random thoughts in my mind about the Irish pub ‘experience…

    – The turn key concept reminds me of how many times I have been in a 20-21st century high rise, mall or airport with a pub at it’s base made of blackened timber and plaster supporting the great building above. The architectural science fascinates me.

    – Hurley’s in Montreal, still going strong. Such a good thing, though I wish they would embrace some more local craft taps. But I get it, they don’t need to, they are still going strong. Kudos to their staff too, hospitality and live music are their weapon.

    – While on Montreal, the old/original Le Vieux Dublin was such a great cross between Irish pub and dive bar. In a way, what’s the difference in spirit? What we call dive bar here is often serving the same roll as a comfy working class pub in the ole country.

    – Not specific to pubs, but it really stands out. Overly loud music, or worse TVs with pro-circus animals and their commentators being blasted at people from screens and speakers really undermines the spirit of the pub, which is conversation and live local/interactive entertainment. At the very least, bring back the quiet snug where people can hear each other away from the TV sheep. I get it, people like sports bars, let them have them, just don’t ruin pubs with this.

    Like I said, random.

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