100 bottles of Irish whiskey and 2,000 Irish Coffees? That’s a normal day’s yield at San Francisco’s time-honored Buena Vista Cafe. Batched along the bar in a neat line of 28 glass goblets, the cafe pours more Irish whiskey than anyone in the world thanks to its renowned recipe. Paul Nolan has been with Buena Vista for more than 40 years and estimates that he’s poured an astounding five million Irish Coffees.
Invented by Irishman Joseph Sheridan in 1942, the original Irish Coffee was developed to soothe and revive the spirit. The recipe made its debut at the Buena Vista in 1952, when owner Jack Koeppler and international travel writer Stanton Delaplane set out to recreate the warming brew after Delaplane enjoyed a glass at Ireland’s Shannon Airport. Decades later, that same recipe graces the bar each day by the thousands.
The goblet of choice at Buena Vista is a dainty 6-ounce stemmed glass that’s shaped to show off a snowcap of whipped cream. The tulip shape prevents an oversized pour of coffee and keeps the balance of ingredients intact. Equally important is what happens before any coffee even hits the bottom. Always preheat your glass by filling it with hot water and letting it sit until warm. This keeps the coveted cocktail steaming hot from the get-go.
Cold cream and room temperature whiskey can cause this hot drink’s temperature to plunge. To counteract that steep drop, Buena Vista keeps its coffee on the hotter side, while making sure that it stays fresh and doesn’t sit around stewing on the burner. Nolan uses an organic medium-roast Colombian coffee blend, which he finds is a solid middle ground, even for those who claim to hate coffee. Nolan warns against using strong roasts. “The coffee complements the drink but should never stand out,” he says. It’s all about the balance of flavors.
The crisp white collar of whipped cream that floats above each glass of Irish Coffee is the most difficult ingredient to perfect. Buena Vista employs heavy whipping cream that’s lightly whipped in an upright blender. According to Nolan, this method ensures “aeration and a slower thickening of the cream,” plus the perfect frothy texture. Buena Vista discovered that cream aged for a few days floats better than fresh-from-the-dairy cream. So let your cream languish for a day or two before whipping. Once you have the right consistency, pour your cream over the back of a warm teaspoon held just above the coffee. Raise the spoon slowly as you pour and watch the perfect Irish Coffee roar to life.
- 2 C&H sugar cubes
- 4-6 ounces brewed coffee
- 1 1/3 ounces Irish whiskey (Nolan recommends Tullamore D.E.W.)
- Heavy cream, lightly whipped
Preheat a 6-ounce heat-proof glass by filling it with hot water. Once warm, discard the water.
Add two sugar cubes to the glass, then add coffee until the glass is 3/4 full. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Add 1 1/3 ounces of whiskey to the coffee and stir gently and briefly to combine.
Float a layer of whipped cream over the top of the coffee by pouring it gently over the back of a spoon.