While some coffee cocktails are complex enough to be left to professional bartenders, some can be prepared at home with just a handful of quality ingredients.
Irish coffee is certainly one of those. This simple hot cocktail is made with black coffee, sugar, and Irish whiskey, as well as being topped with a layer of cream.
I spoke with a bartender and a coffee expert to better understand where this iconic drink comes from, how it’s remained so popular for decades, and how we might see it evolve in the future. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our article on making your own coffee liqueur at home.
What exactly is Irish coffee?
John Jeide is a bartender at the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco. He says their world-famous recipe hasn’t changed since its introduction in 1952.
John explains that Buena Vista’s recipe consists of four basic ingredients: Irish whiskey, freshly brewed coffee, sugar, and heavy whipping cream.
While it’s normally made with Irish whiskey for its smooth flavour, he says customers sometimes ask for Bailey’s cream liqueur or Tuaca (another liqueur) instead.
John serves the drink in a tempered glass that’s narrow at the bottom and wider on top, which he says are the perfect proportions for a coffee cocktail.
“First you warm your glass with boiling water, to keep the coffee hot after adding the whiskey,” he says. “Then, tilt the water out of the glass and pour in coffee until the glass is about three quarters full. Add two lumps of sugar, stir, then add your whiskey.
“Finally, use the back of a spoon to layer hand-whipped cream on top. Sip the hot coffee through the cold cream.”
What you’re left with is a satisfying combination of hot, cold, bitter, and sweet – with a layer of rich hand-whipped cream. Sometimes the cream is fortified to stop it from melting, which keeps it floating on the drink’s surface.
Where did it come from?
Like many popular drinks, details on the origin of Irish coffee are conflicting. I spoke to Alin Giriada, CEO of the Coffee Laboratory in Dublin, Ireland, for more insight.
“There are many stories regarding the invention of Irish coffee,” he says. “One is that it was invented by barman Joe Sheridan in 1942.
“Apparently, an aeroplane had to cancel a flight because of bad weather, and Sheridan came up with the recipe to comfort the stranded passengers.”
However, many believe that it was an American traveler named Stanton Delaplane who brought the drink onto the international stage. According to legend, Delaplane first tried “Gaelic coffee” at an Irish airport, and brought accounts of it to the USA in the 1940s.
After arriving, he spent an evening trying to recreate it at San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café, where the owner, Jack Koeppler, became obsessed with perfecting it.
In a strange twist of fate, Koeppler later visited Foynes Flying Boat Terminal in Ireland, the very same place where – allegedly – Joe Sheridan first served the drink to weary passengers.
Sheridan then returned to the USA with Koeppler at some point. Some even believe that he spent a decade working at Buena Vista, which makes it the “real” home of Irish coffee.
However, another tradition holds that it was invented during World War II at the Temple Bar in Dublin.
The proprietor, Michael Nugent, supposedly added whiskey and cream to help mask the bitter, smoky taste of wartime coffee.
Who is Irish coffee popular with?
Irrespective of its origin, we know that Irish coffee has been around for more than half a century. However, in recent years, it has seen something of a resurgence in popularity – as have coffee cocktails in general.
Research shows that since the Covid-19 pandemic, more consumers have chosen to stay at home, order premium spirits online, and prepare cocktails from the comfort of their kitchen.
Nonetheless, John believes that the Irish coffee is versatile, and whether people make it at home or order it in a bar, he says it’s perfect for almost any situation.
“You can drink an Irish coffee any time of day,” he says. “Before or with breakfast, at lunchtime, or before or after dinner.”
He adds that Buena Vista patrons regularly enjoy it before important sports games, on holidays like St Patrick’s Day, as well as on birthdays and anniversaries.
Interestingly enough, John also notes that the drink seems to be more popular in the US than in Ireland itself.
Alin agrees, and notes that it’s especially popular with tourists.
“Along with a pint of Guinness, it is one of the things you have to try when you visit Ireland,” he says. “As it involves a combination of alcohol and coffee, it is not the type of drink that one would enjoy on a Friday night out. It requires a festive or celebratory context.”
Which coffee should you use?
Alin explains that to brew an outstanding Irish coffee, you naturally need to find high-quality coffee. He tells me that his personal choice is a natural Ethiopian, generally brewed with a Chemex.
While individual preferences differ, most recipes recommend using a coffee that complements the drink instead of overpowering it. This often means avoiding espresso, as its intensity can make the drink too bitter.
Ultimately, however, Alin says that it’s the use of Irish whiskey that sets the Irish coffee apart from other drinks.
Alin says: “There are quite a few other cocktails that use alcohol, coffee, and cream. It’s easy for everyone to guess their origins: Irish coffee, White Russian, Café Brasileiro, and so on.
“The uniqueness of Irish coffee is in the ratio of coffee to alcohol. To get a good result, it’s strongly recommended you use an Irish whiskey.”
John agrees, saying: “We use Tullamore D.E.W. blended Irish whiskey, and Peerless Coffee blends a Buena Vista organic coffee for us. The combination makes for a delicious, smooth flavour.”
How could Irish coffee evolve in the future?
With a few minor variations aside, Irish coffee has remained relatively unchanged since its invention several decades ago.
For cafés like Buena Vista, its unchanging recipe is part of the appeal. John says that he thinks the drink will remain popular, regardless of future trends.
“Irish coffee never seems to go out of style, and the recipe has stayed the same over the years,” he says. “Something about sipping that hot whiskey and coffee concoction through that cold cream – there’s nothing like it. It’s memorable.”
However, while Buena Vista’s recipe hasn’t changed, John does say that he’s seen many Irish coffee-flavoured products appear on the market, including creamers and liqueurs.
Alin, meanwhile, thinks that innovation within specialty coffee might lead to different iterations of the drink.
He explains: “As it is a drink that requires spirits, I would recommend you use coffees that can achieve a fruity, boozy, and winey character through processing.
“So, in the future, I think we could see more honey processed or carbonic macerated coffees being used for this drink.”
No matter what you think of the Irish coffee, it’s clear that its simplicity has set it apart from other coffee and alcohol combinations over the years. As a result, its core recipe is unlikely to change.
Whether or not people experiment with the coffee they use for it, however, is a different question. As Alin says, coffees that naturally have a winey or funky flavour can balance perfectly with the Irish whiskey and give it a very satisfying flavour. Perhaps this is something we’ll see more of in years to come.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring the espresso martini.
Photo credits: The Buena Vista
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