As Mark Renton famously said, it’s shite being Scottish. And it’s about to get considerably worse; this month the sugar content of Irn-Bru will be reduced by more than half.
This is a direct result of the sugar tax announced in the Spring Budget of 2016, which comes in to effect on April 6. From then onwards any soft drink with more than eight grams of sugar per 100ml will be taxed at an extra 24p per litre.
It seems wrong to talk about the drink in such dry economic terms. Irn-Bru is deeply tied up with my childhood and sense of cultural identity. I don’t go in for flag-waving or anthem singing, but that sweet, slightly spicy taste makes me genuinely proud to be Scottish. There’s a picture of me on my ninth birthday clutching a two litre bottle I was given as a gift. I don’t remember anything else I received that year.
So for me and countless others Irn-Bru is much more than a beverage. It’s a cultural icon and a benign symbol of national identity. It’s no exaggeration to say that it unites the people of Scotland. Its popularity spans the social divide in a way that other national drinks don’t.
Take Chinotto for example, an Italian soda made from the juice of a bitter orange native to the country. Like Irn-Bru it has a totally unique flavour. But it’s different in one crucial respect; it’s primarily a working class delicacy. Italian waiters scoff if you try to order it in a classy restaurant. The same can’t be said of Irn-Bru, which is proudly served everywhere from corner kebab shops to Prestonfield House.
From now on it will be mixed with aspartame, that rancid and instantly recognisable ‘sweetener’ that has caused me, on more than one occasion, to bin a whole bottle of something I’ve bought in a hurry at an airport or in a railway station.
Irn-Bru’s cheap knock-offs and low sugar alternatives just aren’t the same. That was demonstrated by two Scottish YouTubers (full disclosure – one of them is my brother) who recently carried out a blind taste test, in which they were able to correctly identify four varieties. This shows that the subtle differences between them are not so subtle. I’m confident that when the new recipe is on the shelves, it will be obvious to everyone that it’s not the real deal.
Perhaps culture and national pride (not to mention my childhood) aren’t important to A.G. Barr’s board of directors – but their bottom line surely is. When Suntory changed Lucozade’s recipe to avoid the sugar tax, sales dropped by 8.4 per cent and the company reportedly lost £25 million.
This is another win for the anti-sugar lobby, but they won’t stop there. Public Health England rang in the New Year by launching a campaign to encourage parents to stop their kids eating any snack with more than 100 calories in it, which excludes almost everything worth eating. Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Ultimately they don’t want fizzy drinks to be less sugary – they want them to disappear outright. And if Lucozade’s recent sales figures are anything to go by, they may well get their wish.
As a committed Irn-Bru fan I would be willing to pay the extra 8p per can to avoid this disaster, and I’m not the only one. Just look at the expletive-laden feedback the company is getting on Twitter. Perhaps if enough people boycott the new formulation the decision will be reversed, but I’m not holding my breath. Goodnight, sweet orange prince. You will be missed.