The “First” Draft Guinness in North America

The question of the expansion of the Irish pub internationally has captured the attention of the general media (e.g., New York Times, 1976), beer media, academics (see e.g., Kevin Martin’s stimulating Irish pub history), and everything in between. This Thrillist piece from 2014 by Dave Infante is illustrative of the beer/food/travel press approach.

My interest initially was not so much the “Irish pub” in North America, but the first appearance of nitrogen-dispense draft Guinness. I mean, the form of draught Guinness that replaced naturally-conditioned Guinness, or real ale if you will, from about 1961 in Ireland.

Still, it is impossible to separate meaningfully the two questions, so I discuss both here.

To my knowledge, no one has pinned down the first appearance Stateside of modern Guinness draft, so I’ll step in. It was in 1965, in St. Louis, Missouri.

An article that year in the Advocate, an Irish-American weekly based in New York that lasted until 1989, 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 branch brewery in 1949-1954. Rather than test its new “widget” dispense in New York or Boston, it elected a Midwest location. It’s a frequent gambit, too, of marketers to choose a regional location for a new launch.

At the same time, St. Louis has always had a strong Irish component, so that didn’t hurt.That St. Louis was centre of the Anheuser-Busch empire was probably coincidental, as all American cities then were dominated by the light adjunct lager style. There was no “dawk” to the Buschs, in other words, except in the sense of finding a good beer town to deploy the black stuff.

An additional point I’d make is, before the post-1990 era of design, construction, and world-wide shipment of Irish pubs, now commodified by large business,  the Irish pub was far from a cipher.

That is, it was a real, living thing in Irish expat communities and American ones still marked by Hibernian culture through the generations. This is evident from reading issues of the Advocate in the 1960s-1970s.

They attest to the close link between Irish-Americans, pubs owned by them that advertised in its pages, and indeed Guinness Brewery, whose various doings are chronicled carefully, whether in Ireland or here.

This included the launch in 1960 of Harp lager, which received no little attention in its pages.

In a word, the Irish pub before the nouvelle vague was genuine and nourished an authentic, living community. The pubs were built in North America and poured, before draft Guinness was available, the taps of the locality. They were no less Irish for that because what made them Irish was the people.

That said, from the early 1960s on in North America and elsewhere outside Ireland, the Irish pub’s packaging and commercialization had started. The Hunter’s Horn pub in 1960s Montreal is surely an example. Shown are extracts from its menu and related documents now in the archives of Montreal’s McCord Museum.

This development was not, I infer, simply an organic outgrowth of an Irish-American community.

Hence, one can probably identify four stages of Irish pub in North America. First, the one referred to by Infante where immigrant Irishmen put up their sign on a pub otherwise local in design and atmosphere (yet he doesn’t in my opinion credit them with enough Irishness).

The famed McSorley’s Old Ale House is a good example in New York, but there were and still are thousands more including in Toronto.

Second, there is the 1960-1990 semi-commercialized Irish pub, perhaps appearing initially at a world exhibition, or simply the vision of an astute businessperson. The English pub with its early decor of red phone booth, flock wallpaper, and banquettes was a similar, and parallel phenomenon.

Third, there was the brilliant turn-key concept pioneered from 1990 by Guinness/Diageo and their numerous competitors, as chronicled by Infante. The result was thousands of Irish pubs from Paris to Peking.

Last, there is the craft emulation of the Irish pub, of which the always-uplifting Allen’s in Toronto and Dora Keogh bar adjacent, are pioneers in Ontario at least. In other words, the vision of one person, not a planning team, and focused more on craft beers and fine whiskeys than the average “corporate” pub.

It’s all grist for further reflection and study, it really is. Some of the academic writers observe for example that music sessions in Irish pubs, indelibly part of the genre today from Dublin to Dubai, were a 1960s development, in part sparked by the American folk revival.

Well, I never. You could write the proverbial book on the Irish pub.*

N.B. Of course draught Guinness, the pre-nitro kind, was widely available in America before Prohibition. The 1965 Advocate piece didn’t mention that, if the journalist even knew it, but anyway the context was the first draft Guinness in the U.S. in recent memory, and post-Prohibition.


*Or rather, another one, as a few already exist.




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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