It's Not Whisky, But Everyone In Scotland Drinks It By The Bottle : Parallels Irn Bru is a neon orange soda that inspires passion and may help explain the strong independent streak in Scotland as it prepares to vote Sept. 18 on whether to break away from the United Kingdom.

It's Not Whisky, But Everyone In Scotland Drinks It By The Bottle

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Coca-Cola is the number one selling soft drink in almost every country, but depending on what statistics you use, one rare exception may be Scotland. There, a florescent orange soda rules the land - a symbol of Scottish identity. In just a few weeks Scotland will vote on whether to break from the United Kingdom, and NPR's Ari Shapiro wondered whether the Scots's love of that fizzy drink can offer any insight into their nationalism.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The drink is called Irn-Bru - I, R, N, B, R, U. For outsiders, Scotland's passion for this drink can be difficult to understand. In Glasgow, Laura Calgie was the very first person we stopped on the street at random to ask about it.

LAURA CALGIE: For my wedding toast I had Irn-Bru in champagne glasses instead of champagne.

SHAPIRO: You're kidding. You had Irn-Bru in champagne glasses.

CALGIE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And you don't have a family connection to the company or anything like that?

CALGIE: I was brought up about 10 minutes away from the factory, so maybe they put something in the water.

SHAPIRO: I figured she must be an outlier, so we stopped Chris Young next. He was walking down the street carrying a bottle of Irn-Bru.

CHRIS YOUNG: The stuff runs in my blood.

SHAPIRO: OK, but he was actually drinking the stuff when we stopped him, so that's not a fair sample. What about the woman he was walking with, Gayle Fergus?

Are you as devoted a fan of Irn-Bru?

GAYLE FERGUS: Probably more.

SHAPIRO: How is that possible? He said it runs in his blood.

FERGUS: Yeah, well, I've got pins. I've got all the merchandise as well.

SHAPIRO: I asked everyone where this fervor comes from - why they're so crazy about this Scottish soda. And the most common answer was we love it because it's Scottish.

FERGUS: We're proud of what we have. I think that's, like, a really Scottish - I think that's why it outsells Coca-Cola, because we're so proud of our own products.

SHAPIRO: At a nearby old-fashioned candy store, shop worker Agnes Plunkett has shelves of Irn-Bru flavored sweets from sticky taffy to fluorescent orange lollipops. She offers us a sample of the Irn-Bru hard candies.

Oh, it's really nice.

AGNES PLUNKETT: It is. Very nice.

SHAPIRO: That's very nice.

PLUNKETT: This is chews. This is Irn-Bru humbugs - orange flavor as well - orange color.

SHAPIRO: How popular are all of these Irn-Bru candies?

PLUNKETT: Very popular.

SHAPIRO: Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitch - kilts, haggis, bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn-Bru's advertising slogans is, made in Scotland from girders - as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.

SARA GRADY: People call Irn-Bru Scotland's other national drink after whiskey whereas I think the Coke prides itself on being a brand that is the same all over the world. Irn-Bru appeals to people because it is so Scottish.

SHAPIRO: Sara Grady works for Data Monitor Consumer, a market research firm in London.

GRADY: I'm English, and so everything I see oh English culture, we're kind of shy about it, whereas they're just loud and proud. It's - in some ways I guess you could say that while Coca-Cola embodies the American dream, Irn-Bru can be the Scottish version of that.

SHAPIRO: At the Irn-Bru factory just outside of Glasgow, 96,000 cans an hour fly through the line. Brand manager Martin Steele is our tour guide.

MARTIN STEELE: We sell about the equivalent of 17 pounds a second, which is a huge volume to keep up with.

SHAPIRO: When we finish the tour, I tell Martin Steele I have something to confess.

I still have not actually tasted an Iron Bru.

STEELE: Shall we do that? Shall I get you a can and then you can try live on the air...

SHAPIRO: May I?

STEELE: ...And see what you think?

SHAPIRO: May I have a taste?

STEELE: Yeah, give me two seconds and I'll nip into the factory and get you a can.

SHAPIRO: He brings back an ice-cold bottle straight off the factory floor. I take a sip and it tastes like soda - sweet, fizzy, a bit bubble-gummy - to me it seems like nothing special. Then again, I'm not Scottish. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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