Exploring Irish Coffee


Like Samuel Beckett, Phil Lynott, U2, Riverdance, and Guinness – all famous exports of Ireland – the classic Irish Coffee is a true child of Ireland: born on Irish soil, created with Irish ingredients. It all began in Foynes Airport, Ireland, in 1942…


By Arthur Wynne


The History


In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Foynes served as the hub for the latest mode of air travel – flying boat – between the US and Europe. Every flying boat leaving or arriving in Europe came through Foynes, and by 1940, Foynes Airport was being visited by the glitterati of the day: Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

Passengers disembarking a flying boat were obliged to endure a boat trip to get to the terminal and sometimes found themselves chilled to the bone in the cold, damp North Atlantic winter. While the flying boats were preparing for the next leg of the journey, passengers recouped at the airport; sometimes they even had to stay overnight during poor weather. So much for glamour. It soon became clear that a first-class restaurant showcasing the best of Irish cuisine was needed. By 1942, the restaurant was operating in full swing with chef Joe Sheridan.

One chilly night, a flight departed Foynes with stops scheduled in Newfoundland and New York, but adverse weather prompted the captain to turn about and head back to Foynes – not an unusual event, but certainly unpleasant, as it meant another trip in the boat. The restaurant was alerted to have food and drink prepared as the passengers would likely be cold, wretched, and in need of cheer.

Joe Sheridan had coffee prepared and decided to put a little something in it to give the passengers a little kick to get them out of their cold slump – so he added a drop (or two) of Irish whiskey to the brew. A surprised American passenger is said to have asked, “Is this Brazilian coffee?” to which Joe replied, “No, that’s Irish coffee!” From that day forward, Irish Coffee became known around the world as the official welcoming drink served at Foynes Airport.

In 1945, Foynes Airport closed, the age of the flying boats having come to an end as land-based aircraft came into their own, and a new airport for landplanes was built nearby. Now known as Shannon International Airport, it is where Joe Sheridan took his now-famous Irish Coffee to welcome passengers to Shannon and to Ireland.

If Foynes was the birthplace of Irish Coffee, then San Francisco was its port of entry to North America. In 1952, the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco was a saloon where longshoremen and workers employed at the nearby sardine cannery took their breaks. At the Buena Vista, they could sip whiskey and watch for the fishing boats to arrive, signaling that it was time to head back to work.

In November of that year, Jack Koeppler, the owner of the Buena Vista, and his friend Stanton Delaplane, a renowned food critic who had enjoyed an Irish Coffee in Shannon, had a brilliant idea. They would re-create the recipe for Irish Coffee.

They spent hours experimenting with various whiskeys and proportions, but one thing eluded them. They couldn’t get the cream to float; it always sunk to the bottom of the glass. Jack even flew to Shannon to ask the man himself, Joe Sheridan, for the secret –  whisk fresh cream just short of stiff and pour it slowly over the back of a spoon to float it on the coffee. The recipe was soon perfected, and it wasn’t long before the fame of the Buena Vista and its Irish Coffee spread throughout North America.

The Buena Vista Café can still be found on the corner of Beach and Hyde Streets, and even now, they make somewhere on the order of 2,000 Irish Coffees a day. In 2002, the Buena Vista celebrated the 50th anniversary of their famous re-creation and estimated that they have served over 32 million Irish Coffees over the years, making them the largest consumer of Irish whiskey in the US.

The Drink

Of course, Irish whiskey, not Scotch whisky, must be used. Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, giving it a smoother mouthfeel, and it is not as smoky as Scotch. But if you have a taste for Scotch, try Connemara Irish whiskey, which is the only peated Irish whiskey. The most common brand of whiskey used is Jameson, which is quite readily available.

If you want authenticity, Joe Sheridan’s recipe originally called for Paddy Old Irish whiskey from the Cork distillery, but I have used a 15-year-old Redbreast which has a sweet, slightly oily finish. If you’re after these or any other rare whiskeys, they can be found atCeltic Whiskey Shop in Dublin, where I have spent some time tasting various whiskeys. In addition to whiskeys that can’t be found anywhere else, they carry the Irish whiskey that is specially bottled for the Buena Vista Café.

And about the coffee… in the original recipe, Bewley’s was used. Bewley’s is a coffee roasting company in Ireland; I’ve visited the roastery in Dublin while I was there. If you don’t happen to have Bewley’s on hand, any freshly ground and brewed coffee will do – we were using Intelligentsia Coffee Roaster’s Ojo de Agua Nicaraguan Microlot coffee in the press pot, and their Oromo Blend in the americanos with great results.

Classic Irish Coffee – The Recipe

The ingredients…
(as Oscar Wilde would describe them)
Cream as rich as an Irish brogue
Coffee as strong as a friendly hand
Sugar as sweet as the tongue of a rogue
Whiskey as smooth as the wit of the land

(as a bartender would describe them)
– 35 ml Irish whiskey
– 2 tsp brown sugar
– Freshly brewed coffee, press pot preferred
– Fresh cold whipping cream
– Use a traditional Irish Coffee glass, one with a handle and a short fluted design.



Preheat the cup
The traditional Irish Coffee cup is on a thick, short stem, with a handle. Preheat with hot water.


Press is best
For the traditional Irish Coffee, you can’t beat a freshly pressed pot of coffee. Don’t skimp on the quality or preparation!


The Whiskey
Just as you wouldn’t want to skimp on the coffee, don’t skimp on the whiskey either – we’re using Jamison’s 12 Year for this tasty beverage.


Whip it up
Where a lot of people make a mistake on Irish Whiskey is the cream – out of a can won’t do. The cream has to be just short of stiff – pourable, but extra, extra thick.


Add the Whiskey
Add your whiskey first, after emptying the glass of the hot water. This allows the whiskey to immediately start releasing big aromas.


Pour the Coffee
As quick as you can, pour the coffee to infuse and distribute the whiskey, locking in the melange of flavours both beverages offer.


Add the brown sugar
Add the brown sugar, and stir until fully dissolved. The beverage is hot, and brown sugar melts quickly.


Fold the cream
As the boys in San Fran figured out, the secret to great Irish Coffee is folding the cream onto the beverage via a spoon. Gentle pouring and layering will create a great looking and even better tasting drink.


The finished beverage
The finished Irish Coffee beverage, ready to enjoy and savour.

That’s it! Drink the hot coffee and whiskey through the layer of cold cream, as it’s meant to be – don’t stir! This fine Irish beverage is a must-have recipe for every bartender to have in their book. If you’ve ever experienced a cold Irish winter, you’ll know why this drink is worth every drop.

Now if you’re adventurous, try this signature version of the Irish Coffee – it has a little extra heat to it!

Signature Drink:  The Devil in Molly Malone

I’ve been anxious to use maple syrup in an inventive way in a “coffee and fine spirits” beverage for quite some time, and I also have a great interest in providing subtle spiciness where people least expect it. This drink allowed me to do both. We sourced some of the absolute best maple syrup to ever come out of the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, and one of the best Irish Whiskeys out there – Redbreast 12 year, which has especially sweet and soft characteristics.


The glass…
160 ml glass – we’ve chosen the Illy Collection Freddo crystal glass for this drink build.

The ingredients…

– 30 ml Redbreast 12 year whiskey
– 1 tsp Demerara (unrefined, raw) sugar
– 10 ml ultra premium maple syrup
– Fresh cold whipping cream
– Americano (4 oz / 120 ml)
– Small chili pepper

The method…

  • Whip the cream with the maple syrup until just short of stiff. Set aside in the refridgerator to chill.
  • Butterfly cut the chili and remove the seeds; then rub the rim of the glass with the inside of the chili and set aside for garnish.
  • Preheat the glass with hot water until warm, and then empty the water.
  • Pour in the whiskey and then the freshly brewed americano to about an inch below the top of the glass.
  • Add the unrefined sugar and stir until fully dissolved.
  • Carefully fold and float the cream over the back of the spoon into the glass and garnish with the butterfly-cut chili.

On presentation to your guests, it’s up to you whether or not you tell them there’s a bit of a chili “hit” from the rim of the glass; hence the drink’s name.