It’s probably safe to say that Irish Coffee is one of the more popular drinks in the world, and for good reason. It’s simple, delicious, it’ll wake you right up at the end of a long night at the bar, and it belongs to a special category of hot cocktails that you can drink all year round, not just in the dead of winter. But we’re nonetheless struck by how little people actually know about this classic drink, so we wanted to put some of the misconceptions to rest and answer the question: what is Irish Coffee, anyway?
The History of Irish Coffee
First off, it’s helpful to know where the drink comes from. While a lot of pundits (if there is such a thing in the world of cocktails) like to claim that Irish Coffee was actually invented here in the US, the story doesn’t hold up.
According to the most likely tradition—though, as with all drink histories, we should still treat this one with some skepticism—the first Irish Coffee was served in the 1940s in County Foynes, Ireland, to a gaggle of American tourists who had just arrived from the States via Pan Am flying boat.
The night was apparently frigid, and the Americans asked for some coffee to help them thaw out. In a classic display of Irish hospitality, chef Joe Sheridan added a dram of whiskey to each for an extra bit of warmth, and the weary travelers loved it. Thus, the Irish Coffee was born.
The misconception that the drink was invented in the States comes from an incident that took place nearly a decade later. On November 10, 1952, while waiting for his flight at Shannon Airport (built on the location where Joe Sheridan had originally served his recipe), San Francisco Chronicle travel writer Stanton Delaplane had himself an Irish Coffee for the first time.
Upon returning to San Francisco, Delaplane met with Buena Vista Cafe owners Jack Koeppler and George Freeberg in the hope of recreating the recipe. The trio spent a few nights knocking back poor imitations of the original (though we can’t imagine it was too much of a hardship), frustrated that they couldn’t get the cream to float properly like it had at Shannon Airport.
They eventually enlisted the aid of San Francisco mayor George Christopher, a prominent dairy owner with apparently nothing better to do, who suggested that they age their cream for 48 hours to let it thicken up. Though probably as skeptical as we would be about such advice, the trick worked, and Buena Vista Cafe had their Irish Coffee.
Thanks to a mention in Delaplane’s wildly popular travel column, the drink (and the cafe) were suddenly the talk of gourmands in the Bay Area and all across the country. Since then, Buena Vista has served millions of Irish Coffees, broken the astonishingly pointless record for “world’s largest Irish Coffee,” and succeeded in making nearly everyone forget about the actual inventor of the cocktail, Joe Sheridan.
We doubt he’s too broken up about it, and there’s certainly something to be said for popularizing the Irish Coffee to the extent that Delaplane, Koeppler, and Freeberg managed. But as much as we’d like to take credit for our hometown, we’re going to have to give this one to County Foynes.
The Classic Irish Coffee Recipe
Making the drink yourself is actually a relatively simple process. If you know how to brew a pot of coffee, lightly whip some cream, and buy a bottle of Irish whiskey, you’re ahead of the game. Despite the short ingredient list, though, there’s a bit of prep work you’ll want to do beforehand.
First, decide whether you want to use granulated brown sugar or brown sugar simple syrup. With a few notable exceptions, we generally prefer to use syrup in cocktails, because you don’t have to worry about ending up with a sugary slush at the bottom of your glass if it doesn’t dissolve properly. Since the Irish Coffee is hot and contains a lot of water, though, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Next, you’ll want to get the whipped cream ready. While you’re certainly welcome to use the stuff that comes in a can, the classic recipe is made with unsweetened cream, which you’re better off making yourself. The texture is smoother, and we figure there’s enough sugar in this drink as it is.
Simply take a pint of heavy whipping cream, put it in a bowl, and go to town on it for a minute or two with an electric hand mixer. It’s fairly easy to eyeball the consistency, so whip it until it’s as fluffy as you’d like. There’s no need to let the cream “age” like they did in the ’50s, unless you’re really going for authenticity.
Then, it’s just a matter of combining everything in the right order and in the right amounts. Our classic Irish Coffee recipe goes into detail on how to do it, but feel free to experiment! Cocktailing is as much art as science, and we’d never end up with any of the great drinks we have today—Irish Coffee included—if everyone just stuck to the recipe books.