A Brief History Of Irish Coffee

How an airport bar catering to stranded travelers brought us the whiskey-and-coffee combo we love.

While Joe Sheridan may not have been the first-ever Irishman to add whiskey to coffee, he's widely credited with popularizing the drink we now know as Irish Coffee, enjoyed by countless St. Patrick's Day revelers each year. According to legend, the invention had much less to do with mixology and more to do with simple hospitality.

In the mid-1940s, Sheridan was a chef at the restaurant and coffee shop at Foynes Port in County Limerick, Ireland, home to one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe during World War ll. Foynes was a central airbase for transatlantic flights, so political bigwigs and Hollywood stars commonly passed through while globetrotting. One cold night in the winter of 1943, a New York–bound flight was forced to return to Foynes Port shortly after takeoff due to terrible weather conditions.

Sheridan hurried to the kitchen, preparing for the weary travelers' arrival by brewing some hot coffee and adding a layer of cream to each serving—then, presumably for an extra bit of warmth, he added Irish whiskey, too. A delighted passenger asked whether it was Brazilian coffee he was tasting, to which Sheridan answered, "No, that was Irish Coffee!" In the weeks that followed, he gave the drink more pizzazz by placing it in stemmed glassware; it soon became the signature drink at Foynes.

As the airport continued to be a busy hub following the war, travelers far and wide learned about the drink, including Stanton Delaplane, a travel columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. In November 1952, Delaplane waxed poetic about the piping-hot and punchy drink to Jack Koeppler, then owner of the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco near Fisherman's Wharf (first opened as a saloon in 1916). Delaplane convinced Koeppler to perfect the drink, and as Buena Vista tells it, Koeppler went on a pilgrimage to experience the original at Foynes Port. After some trial and error—specifically, perfecting the consistency and buoyancy of the cream layer—Irish coffee became synonymous with the San Francisco hot spot.

With their white tuxedo jackets, black ties, and endlessly busy hands, the bartenders at Buena Vista, some of whom have worked there for decades, can almost always be found preparing steaming rows of Irish coffee for the eager customers who belly up to the bar at the corner of Beach and Hyde Streets. The simple concoction of whiskey, coffee, sugar, and cream has been Buena Vista's signature drink for more than half a century, memorialized on a plaque outside that gives credit to Sheridan, Delaplane, and Koeppler.

The cafe reportedly serves up as many as 2,000 Irish coffees per day and empties hundreds of bottles of Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey every week. Because of this, Buena Vista has been (unofficially) named the largest maker of Irish coffee in the world.

Irish coffee enthusiasts ready to take their skills to the next level can learn how to make Joe Sheridan's famous version in the very building where he created it. Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum in Limerick offers a Masterclass (for groups of 10 or more) in its Irish Coffee Centre. Participants receive a certificate, an "Irish Coffee Champion Medallion," and serious bragging rights. In case you don't find yourself in Ireland anytime soon, however, we've included the recipe below.


Recipe for homemade Irish Coffee

Ingredients:

  • 4-6 oz. hot, freshly brewed coffee
  • 2 sugar cubes (or 1 tsp. brown sugar, as the original Foynes recipe suggests)
  • 1⅓ oz. Irish whiskey (The Buena Vista version uses Tullamore D.E.W.)
  • Unsweetened heavy cream, whipped
  • Steps:

  1. Take a 6-oz. heat-resistant stemmed glass and preheat it by filling it with hot water.
  2. Empty the glass, then add the two sugar cubes.
  3. Add hot coffee until the glass is about ¾ full.
  4. Stir vigorously with a teaspoon until sugar is dissolved.
  5. Add 1⅓ oz. or a jigger (1.5 oz.) of whiskey to the glass. Stir to combine.
  6. Gently float a hearty dollop of whipped cream atop the coffee by pouring it slowly over the back of a spoon into the glass.

Optional: Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

 

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