Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: Irish Coffee

As the weather cools, Bill turns to the perfect Irish coffee.

Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat.

--Alex Levin

I can envision a small cottage somewhere, with a lot of writing paper, and a dog, and a fireplace and maybe enough money to give myself some Irish coffee now and then and entertain my two friends.

Lt. Richard Van de Geer

The news brings words of an Arctic front creeping from the north. The wind whips ochre and vermilion leaves into frenzy, loosening them from their seasonal mooring and sending them earthbound in spirals. Cold rain, perhaps, beats against the window panes, and the dog curls into a circle in front of the fire.

It is time for Irish Coffee, a drink divine in its simplicity when properly done, soothing, full of temperature contrasts as whiskey laced coffee, hot and sweet, slides through ice cold cream layered atop its warmth. It is a cocktail that gives you license to sip and read quietly or talk into the night. It is a pick me up when the wind howls during the day or an after dinner relaxer when the company is fine. It is easy for anyone to make, and yet far too often it is corrupted by spirits that don’t belong anywhere near its glass, lousy ingredients, poor technique and general bartender laziness. But when done well, it offers pleasures that few drinks can match.

A Rainy Night in Shannon Meets A Windy One in San Francisco

It sounds like an apocryphal tale, because surely humans the world over had been lacing coffee with their local booze, sugar and cream for millennia, but the accounts are legion and consistent. One wind whipped and rain soaked night in 1943, a band of travelers bound for Canada aboard a Pan Am Flying Boat were forced to take shelter at Foynes Port, just up the River Shannon from the coast. The miserable weather forced them inside, their air boat grounded until the storm lifted, and Joseph Sheridan, head chef at Foynes, took one look at the wet and weary travelers and decided to warm them up with coffee doctored with good Irish Whiskey and brown sugar  and topped with some of the sweet local cream. Those travelers sipped and declared the concoction, dubbed Irish Coffee by Sheridan, good indeed.

In time, as sea travel is replaced by air, Foynes Port closes, but Irish Coffee is still quietly served at Shannon Airport, warming travelers’ bodies and hearts there for nearly a decade until one Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, arrives at Shannon in November of 1952 and is utterly seduced. Arriving home, Koeppler charges Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer of his acquaintance, with recreating the Irish Coffee Koeppler enjoyed at the airport. Experimentation met with failure. Koeppler and Delaplane couldn’t get the taste quite right and could not get the cream to float. A return trip to Ireland later, for research of course, and they settled on a different whiskey, one that brought the taste up to snuff, but still the cream was stubborn in its refusal to stay atop the glass.

The cream at Shannon did not appear to be stiffly whipped; it just sat lightly and thick on the coffee, and they could just not match it. An expert was needed, and fortunately the mayor of San Francisco, Elmer Edwin Robinson, was also a dairy man. He suggested they age the cream for 48 hours, and then whip it very lightly. The result was a success;   the cream “would float as delicately as a swan on the surface of Jack’s and Stan’s special nectar.”

The Buena Vista is still thriving on Fisherman’s Wharf and still pours a rather nice Irish Coffee, cranking out upwards of 2,000 a day and using 18,720 liters of Irish whiskey a year. On November 10, 2008, they even made the world's largest Irish Coffee. Sophisticated travelers would naturally choose to avoid the Wharf, with its tourist trap shops and soup in bread bowls, but the Buena Vista is worth a detour to sip an Irish Coffee at the bar and watch the seasoned barman at work. But be warned, they go down easy, and the caffeine in the coffee can mask the intoxicating effects of the whiskey.

A Note on Ingredients

Irish Coffee contains four things, and four things only. In the words of creator Joe Sheridan they are, "Cream as rich as an Irish brogue, coffee as strong as a friendly hand, sugar as sweet as the tongue of a rogue, and whiskey as smooth as the wit of the land."

Too often, bars of a lesser sort resort to using substitutes or additions. They use Irish Cream liqueurs in addition to, or worse in place of, the whiskey. They use syrups. They use lousy coffee. They use that ridiculous aerosol whipped “cream” and mound it over the rim of the glass as in an ice cream sundae. In attempt to make the drink “Irish,” they drizzle green crème de menthe over the mound of whipped cream. In the words of Kerry Norris, my sister and a keen appreciator of Irish Coffee who travels a lot for her work and has taken it upon herself to correct many a poor bartender, “Hold the green shit.”

A Note on Technique

One of the most overlooked aspects to crafting a proper Irish Coffee is the mirror image of a problem with many cold cocktails—a failure to season the glass. Just as a room temperature glass will rapidly warm a chilled cocktail, a room temperature glass will rapidly cool a hot drink. The very first step in making a proper Irish Coffee is to season the glass with hot water, allowing it to warm so that the contrast between the cool cream and hot coffee will not be lost. Tepid coffee makes for a poor drink even without liquor. Warm your glassware and your coffee will be better for it.

What of This Glassware?

The old adage goes that we taste first with our eyes. A properly made Irish Coffee is a thing of beauty; in a clear glass, the thick layer of cream atop the dark coffee resembles a perfectly pulled pint of Guinness with its black body and white head. The Buena Vista uses a six ounce stemmed goblet, which is nice, but a shade small for home use. Kitschy glasses, marked with measurement lines, are widely available at thrift shops and on eBay. An 8 ounce stemmed wine glass is ideal. And clear glass coffee mugs are fine, as long as they’re in that 8-9 ounce sweet spot. Just be sure that your glass choice is tempered so that the hot coffee won’t shatter it in your hand and douse you in scalding coffee.

Another Note on Ingredients

Jameson Irish Whiskey is the one of the fastest growing spirit brands in the country, and the major liquor conglomerates have taken note, bringing previously un-imported products into the United States, expanding the reach of other brands and launching new labels, seemingly each week.

For your Irish Coffee needs, almost any of them will work. Irish whiskey has a mellow character that allows it to meld easily with coffee and sugar, and for that reason, you should probably avoid otherwise good products that see some level of peat (Michael Collins). You also don’t need to spend a lot. While single malt Irish will taste just dandy, the basic blends of Jameson, Power’s, Paddy, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew (the choice at the Buena Vista) are all fine. Use what you’ve got, as long as it’s Irish.

That said, a pure pot still whiskey like Redbreast makes an amazing drink if you’re feeling flush, and I wouldn’t turn one down with Green Spot if by some miracle you can locate a bottle.

The Coffee and The Cream

For your Irish Coffee, you’ll need to procure some heavy whipping cream. Light cream won’t float well, the stuff that squirts out of the can is oddly textured and adulterated with sweeteners, and culinary abominations like Cool Whip are flat wrong.

A truly skillful bartender can successfully float heavy cream without thickening it, simply by slowly pouring it over the back of a spoon angled against the interior of the glass. The differing density and temperatures of the coffee and cream will allow it to set up. But this takes patience and skill, and for neophytes will result in many a failed Irish Coffee.

The solution is easy: thicken your cream, but do not whip it. You are not trying to create a dessert topping, you are just trying to make your life a touch easier. You can do this with a whisk or electric mixer, but there’s a far easier way using only your bar equipment. If you pop the string off a standard Hawthorne strainer, plop it into a cocktail shaker filled with cold cream and shake for a few minutes, the spring will act like a whisk and lightly thicken the cream. Its texture should still be pourable, but it should pour slowly and thickly, like cooling lava, and float easily when you try to layer it atop your drink.

For your coffee, brewed drip coffee is generally best because the warming plate keeps it piping hot and it has a clarity that is missing from espresso based coffee or French press coffee and the layer of crema produced by those methods will interfere with the layering of the cream. Instant coffee is the work of Satan and should be avoided.

Make your coffee strong, maybe a shade stronger than your usual brew, and if possible, choose a good bean and grind it to order. Coffee is the primary ingredient, and it is the last place you should skimp.

A Note on Enjoying

Few things are more aggravating to a bartender who has taken the time to make a proper Irish Coffee then to have a punter immediately stir the whole thing. She’s taken the time to properly season the glass, to measure out the sugar and whiskey, to slightly thicken and float the cream on its top and it sits there on the bar, a study in color and temperature contrast, and the customer immediately swirls that layered cream into the drink.

One of the joys of an Irish Coffee is the way the thickened cream cools the hot coffee as it passes through.  If you don’t have a slight cream mustache when you’ve finished your first sip, you’re not doing it right.

The Sweetest Thing

Choosing a good sugar is paramount here, and measuring it judiciously is important. Best is a brown sugar, as specified by Mr. Sheridan, and light brown works better than dark. Next best would be sugar in the raw or turbinado sugar, followed by evaporated cane sugar and then standard white sugar. Artificial sweeteners that come in rainbow colored packets should be avoided - if you are concerned about calories, you should choose a drink that doesn’t rely on heavy cream as a main ingredient. I suppose, for those with medical issues that preclude real sugar, stevia could be attempted, but you can go first. Honey and agave nectar are also non-starters.

A Recipe

Irish Coffee

2 oz. Irish Whiskey
2 tsp. light brown sugar
5-6 oz. freshly brewed, strong coffee
2 tbl. heavy cream

Fill a clear, stemmed glass with very hot water and set aside.

Add your cream to a cocktail shaker along with the spring from your strainer. Shake for a few minutes until the cream thickens slightly. Remove spring from shaker.

Dump the hot water from your serving glass, and shake lightly to remove all the water. Add sugar to the glass and top with Irish Whiskey and hot coffee, leaving a couple of fingers of space clear at the top of the glass. Stir to dissolve sugar and then halt the circular motion of the coffee with your spoon until the liquid is steady and unmoving. A still surface is critical to successfully floating the cream.

Invert a spoon and angle it against the interior of the glass, below the rim. SLOWLY pour the cream over the back of the spoon so it layers on top of the coffee and reaches the top of the glass.

Sip The Coffee Through The Cream & Enjoy.

-- Previous Installments:

The Jack Rose

The Lion's Tail

The Mint Julep

The Negroni

The Aviation

The Sazerac

The Mojito

The Last Word

The Ramos Fizz

Bucks, Mules and Their Ilk

The Pegu Club

Follow Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here.