No matter where you come down on the nutmeg or no nutmeg debate, or even the debate over whether to include strong whiskey or the more delicate Clontarf, Irish coffee has a long, storied history. It’s one that’s as charming as it is practical — much like the Irish chef who invented it.
Unlike other drinks born out of creativity and imagination, Irish coffee sprang from necessity. It came about in the 1940s, at a time when Pan Am flying boats were used to make Atlantic crossings before large airports with long runways existed. Meeting his American passengers as they disembarked on the water in Foynes, Chef Joe Sheridan, a head chef at a nearby restaurant, brought the passengers coffee to warm them. Sensibly added to it to ward off the damp night’s chill was some whiskey. Legend has it that after he was asked if they were drinking Brazilian coffee, Sheridan told them it was Irish.
The beverage caught on, and after 1945 when transatlantic flights began to land at the nearby Shannon airport, which was built on a bog, Sheridan’s Irish coffee was served there. It still is today, in a restaurant known as Sheridan’s Food Pub, but it was back in 1952 that a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Stanton Delaplane, tried it on his way through the airport. He immediately fell in love with the drink, and decided to bring it to America.
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A regular at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, Delaplane and bar owners Jack Koeppler and George Freeberg set about recreating this hot and cool cream-topped warmer. Of course it was a long night of trial and error, but eventually they found the perfect recipe, down to figuring out how to properly float the cream on top of the drink.
Dale DeGroff, James Beard Winner and author of The Craft of the Cocktail, notes the importance of balancing the textures and flavors and simply describes the drink as, “cold cream, hot sweet coffee, laced with wonderful Irish whiskey,” He should know. He made plenty of them over the years; especially in the days when Senator Patrick Moynihan hosted his annual St. Patrick’s Day brunch at the now-closed midtown saloon, Charley O’s. In the mid-1970s, DeGroff worked there as the service bartender, and it was his job to keep up with the whipping of the cream to top each and every Irish coffee going into the hands of New York City — and sometimes the world’s — most notable faces. This was a movers and shakers event; the kind at which you might have found yourself standing next to Bobby Kennedy as he informally announced his plans to run for President. That really happened, and just another reason, besides pride in the job, that made it so important to get this drink right.
DeGroff shares, ” The only reason I made it right was that I was taught by Pat and Mike, the original Charley O’s bartenders on staff when Joe Baum opened the restaurant. Baum had emissaries going to Ireland to make sure the drinks and food were made correctly. At Moynihan’s brunch, which lasted from 6 AM until 11 AM when everyone would go outside to join the parade, people would be drinking Irish whiskey or Irish coffee and so you’d find five bartenders behind the bar. For the coffees it was all completely set up on the channel – that was the bar back’s job to set up the glasses. One guy’s job was to do the sugar and dissolve with the coffee, followed by the guy with the whiskey, followed by the guy with the cream followed by the bar back putting down more cups to replace the drinks guests had just picked up. We set up 60 glasses for each walk through and keep re-setting every 15 or 20 minutes. As the least senior bartender my arm was falling off because I was the guy back there hand whipping the cream.”
He shares his techniques for getting the cream to pour across the back of a spoon, “Over whip it and it gets too stiff, but you can add in more cream to bring it back down. If you get it to peak, it’s not going to pour. You want it stiff, but not going so slowly that you have to drag it.”
For many bartenders, making Irish coffee has been seen as a drag and so few do it as its meant to be done. At the Dead Rabbit, even before they opened, they were bound and determined to get it right. Co-owner and operating partner Jack McGarry, also known as the winner of the International Bartender of the Year award from Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, shares the experience that motivated him and his business partner Sean Muldoon, “Just before we opened we did an historic walking tour of the Financial District with Dave Wondrich. When we returned to the bar Dave made a punch that was amazing and Dale made an Irish coffee that stole the show. It was even before we opened that the seed was planted for this partnership to further improve our Irish coffee in conjunction with Dale. We just asked him to improve our Irish Coffee and he was totally up for it. It’s one of his favorite drinks and he was constantly giving us tips on how to improve ours when he was drinking in the bar. However, it required him to be fully involved to get it right and that’s what we did.”
He continues, “Sean first tried it in London in the early 2000s at a trade show or late 1990s. He told me all about it, and he explained that Dale asked the audience how many of them had a good Irish coffee and no one raised their hands. He said that most places use the wrong glass, have the wrong portions, don’t treat the coffee right, use the wrong cream, etc. He said it should be treated as a cocktail and that all the proportions should be balanced. It’s a similar type of story that Sasha Petraske told about the Manhattan. That it should taste like a Manhattan and you shouldn’t be able to distinguish the Rye, Vermouth and Bitters. Dale said, it should taste like an Irish coffee; not too much coffee, whiskey, sugar or cream.”
Dead Rabbit’s original recipe called for white sugar, which DeGroff swapped out for brown because, as he says, ” I added the brown sugar because I wanted the depth.” As for the other elements McGarry explains, “Our previous Irish coffee used Jameson Original in the Taproom and Powers Signature Single Pot Still in the Parlor. Both of these whiskeys have higher pot still percentages — Signature is 100% — in their make-up than Clontarf does. Therefore, the resulting Irish Coffee was slightly spicier and more whiskey forward. The coffee/sugar mix was drier also.
No matter how you like it, drier or a little richer, one thing is certain: if it looks like a Guinness going by, you’ve done it right. DeGroff concludes, “Hand whipped unsweetened cream through which you’re drinking good sweetened Irish whisky laced coffee is the whole ball of wax. There are people who get it and people who don’t. It’s a marvelous drink.”
Dale DeGroff’s Irish Coffee
- 4 oz Dead Rabbit Sumatra Mandheling Coffee (hot)
- 1 1/2 oz Premium Irish Whiskey (Clontarf)
- 1/2 oz Demerara Sugar Syrup (2 parts Demerara sugar to 1 part water heated until the sugar dissolves)
Instructions: Prepare the drink in an 8 oz stemmed glass. Combine the coffee, sugar syrup and Irish whiskey. Hand whip the cream so that it still pours and floats on top of the coffee. Never sweeten the cream.
Foynes Meets France
A Francine Cohen Original Recipe
- 4 oz Dark Coffee (brewed)
- 1 oz. Brenne Whiskey
- 1.25 Merlet C2 Café Liqueur (Cognac & Coffee Liqueur)
- Brown sugar to taste
- Hand-whipped cream poured over top
Buena Vista Cafe Irish Coffee
- Some Hot water
- 6 oz. Hot Fresh Brewed Coffee
- 2 Cocktail Sugar Cubes
- A jigger (shot) of your favorite Irish Whiskey
- Fresh (preferably homemade) whipped cream
Method: To start off, you will need to fill your empty glass with the hot water to preheat the glass. After you fill it, let it preheat the glass for a few seconds and then proceed to dump the water out. Follow by pouring the freshly brewed coffee into the glass until it is about three quarters of the way filled. Then, place the two cocktail sugar cubes into the mix. Stir the mixture until the sugar cubes have dissolved. You can then add the shot or jigger of your favorite Irish whiskey into the coffee and sugar mix. Stir again. Then using a warm spoon, flip it over, and let the homemade whipped cream carefully slide over the spoon’s back and onto your Irish coffee mixture. You want to make sure that the whipped cream does not break into the Irish coffee’s surface.