Experience the Irish Coffee

Adventure, travel, and airport experiences served in a hot glass

Photo “Irish Coffee” by Denise Mattox from Flickr.com CC License 2.0

The Recipe

If you want to know more, read on. If you’re just here for a recipe, here it is. Mix away, and Cheers.

  • 2 tsp. sugar (or 2 sugar cubes)
  • 3 to 4 oz. Brewed coffee
  • 1 1/3 oz. Irish Whiskey
  • 1 oz. Heavy cream, lightly whipped

Pre-heat glass by filling with hot water and emptying when hot. Add sugar to the glass, then pour over coffee until the glass is 3⁄4 full. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add Whiskey. Float a layer of cream over the top by pouring gently over a heated spoon. The Buena Vista Café makes the definitive Irish Coffee using a 6 oz. glass, Tullamore Dew Whiskey, and sugar cubes. Vary the recipe at your own peril.

The Experience

This drink is about adventuring into the new and unexpected. It’s like being on an unplanned trip where you discover the perfect pizza in a tiny café, stumble into a local unadvertised chocolate festival, or accept a celebratory drink from a new father in a language you don’t speak just so you can be part of his joy. There is the excitement of blending into a new place and opening yourself up to feeling and sensing different sounds, new smells, and unfamiliar tastes.

The hot cup, smooth cream, and stinging aroma from the coffee combine with the double kick of Whiskey and caffeine to bring your senses into the moment. This drink demands your attention like the archaeology professor who tosses his dusty Indiana Jones jacket into the corner so he can properly open a worn leather pouch containing the last remaining artifact of an ancient and revered people who were the first to decide that sugar should be formed into lumps to be melted into delicious hot drinks… Okay, I got a little off my metaphors there, but I dare you to have two Irish Coffees and tell me I’m wrong.

You’re not traveling, so get that experience at home

You want to remember those times that you traveled and loved it. Old photo albums, interesting souvenirs, or phone calls to favored travel companions will help get our head in the right space. Decorate your bar as if it’s the kind of place that’s been waiting a hundred years for you to walk through the door. Quiet and subdued if that’s your thing, or full of music and laughter if that’s more your speed. Elbow your way to the bar or sit quietly in solitude while the steaming glass waits patiently for your first sip.

That sip will be full of cold cream, hot coffee, and strong Whiskey. It will leave a lasting impression on your taste buds and a frothy moustache on your lip. Enjoy the bitter-sweet, hot-cold, caffeinated-alcoholic bounce while your mind, body, and soul become immersed in experience.

The History

There are two prominent versions of the origins of this drink and it’s introduction to the United States. The most popular is that it was brought to San Francisco through the work of a reporter named Jack Delaplane in 1952 who had tasted an Irish Coffee in the Shannon Airport. Delaplane then worked with his friend Jack Koeppler who owned the Buena Vista Café, and the Mayor of San Francisco who owned a dairy farm to come up with the perfect recipe which hasn’t changed since. The dairy farm was key, because they had trouble getting the cream just right. Aaahhh the 50s…

Another version says that the drink was first introduced in New York city by a food reporter named Clementine Paddleford in 1948. She also apparently had this drink at that same bar in the Shannon Airport. There aren’t any cool stories about dairy cows or multi-day attempts to perfect the drink, but as Ms. Paddleford was a food reporter, it’s likely that the story has some merit.

As for how it got to the Shannon Airport, all official accounts credit a bartender named Joseph Sheridan who began adding whiskey to coffee in 1943 for passengers of a flight that had to turn around due to bad weather. Sheridan later accepted a job at the Buena Vista Café making its signature drink and stayed in San Francisco for the rest of his life. If that doesn’t flat out give credibility to their recipe and process, then I don’t know what does.

Regardless of how it got here, the Buena Vista Café is undoubtedly the best place to drink one on this continent. It’s been a while since I’ve traveled, especially to that coast, but if you are ever in San Francisco then you should treat yourself to the experience. The Buena Vista Café serves thousands (no, seriously thousands!) of Irish Coffees every day using the recipe perfected by Sheridan, Koeppler, and Delaplane.

The Drink

This drink is all about preparation. It’s not a typical ice-and-shake style and requires a little technique and some practice.

Heat the glass. Buena Vista Café uses a 6-ounce clear glass so that you can see the cream floating on top. In practice, any glass or mug will work, but a handle keeps you from getting burned and clear glass shows off your handiwork. Pour hot water into the glass to get it ready.

Once the glass is hot, pour out the water and add sugar, then coffee. Use sweetened coffee even if you don’t usually like sugar in your coffee. You need some sugar to counteract the Whiskey and tie everything together. I have tried granular and cubed sugar and they don’t seem to make much difference. Sweetened syrups are preferred by some because they’re less grainy but I like plain white sugar. Sir vigorously until the sugar is dissolved. This doesn’t have to be a silky-smooth drink and even if there are a couple stray sugar granules it won’t matter.

Add Irish Whiskey, but don’t stir. Room temperature Whiskey will mix just fine with the hot coffee without your help. You want to taste Whiskey when you drink it. You’ll want a ratio of anywhere between 2:1 to 5:1 Coffee to Whiskey depending on how strong you like your drinks. Buena Vista Café uses 1 1/3 oz. Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey in a 6 oz. glass, so it’s pretty strong.

The cream is the hard part. Use cold heavy cream (Liquor.com recommends more than 36% fat) and whip it until it’s frothy but not heavy. It should pour, but slowly. This takes practice. When it’s a nice frothy consistency, pour it over the back of a spoon so that it layers on to your coffee. It should be enough to give you a nice layer of cream on top of your coffee that reaches maybe just a little above the rim of your cup.

Of course, these are one man’s opinions and sanctioned only by me and those who drink at my home bar. But, practice up your technique and impress both your friends and your taste buds. Sláinte!

Loves writing, loves teaching, and loves his 7-year-old daughter. All of which are potential topics of hopefully entertaining posts.

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