The Irish Coffee may not be the first coffee drink with alcohol, but this cocktail has become one of the most famous. Combining coffee with Irish whiskey, brown sugar and lightly whipped cream, the Irish Coffee is a hot, creamy classic that can wake you up on cold mornings or keep you going after a long night.
There are many tall tales about the Irish Coffee’s origins. The most credible version attributes the cocktail to Joe Sheridan, the head chef of the restaurant at the Foynes Flying Boat terminal in County Limerick in the early 1940s, who wanted to add a little local hospitality to the establishment’s coffee. Legend has it that when he first served it and was asked if it was Brazilian coffee, Sheridan cheekily replied that it was “Irish coffee.”
The drink was later made famous by Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane, who frequented the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco during the 1950s. After tasting one in Ireland, he and the bar’s owner, Jack Koeppler, attempted to recreate the warming elixir. They succeeded, and Deplante wrote about the drink in his column, which was read widely across the States. This helped to earn the drink a following at Buena Vista and beyond. On a busy day, the San Francisco bar can serve more than 2,000 Irish Coffees. With its comforting blend of whiskey, caffeine and cream, it’s easy to see the drink’s appeal.
According to bartending legend Dale DeGroff, the Irish Coffee should not be a large drink. He says that bars, particularly in America, go too big, which ruins the balance of an otherwise great cocktail. "Choose the vessel wisely," he says. "The small bell-shaped glass that Libbey has been providing to The Buena Vista for decades is a nice size at six ounces."
Then you can build your drink right in the glass, starting with the whiskey, sugar and coffee, and topping it with a dose of thick cream. "At The Buena Vista Cafe, the concoction is finished with a white cloud of hand-whipped cream," says DeGroff. "This topping serves two important purposes: It creates the drink’s signature dramatic black-and-white look, and the unsweetened coolness of the cream tempers the alcohol and the hot, sugary coffee." If you’d like to decorate that gorgeous white head, you can optionally add a dusting of fresh cinnamon or nutmeg for a fragrant garnish.
"You also don’t need a giant pour of Irish whiskey," says DeGroff. "Delaplane and Koeppler’s recipe calls for a one-ounce shot. I know it seems stingy, but do not be put off—it’s actually good news. That liquor, along with three-and-a-half ounces of steaming-hot sweetened coffee and three-quarters of an inch of lightly whipped cream, is so delicious you’ll want to consume at least two more." Liquor.com’s recipe below calls for slightly more than that, but it's still not enough to knock you off your bar stool.
Degroff offers three additional tips for creating a perfect Irish Coffee:
1. Use a stemmed glass no larger than eight ounces. (With an eight-ounce glass, you can go up to one-and-a-half ounces of Irish whiskey. I am partial to Jameson.)
2. Top with no more than four ounces of steaming-hot sweetened coffee.
3. Lightly whip the cream. It should not form peaks, but it should be frothy enough to float, creating that perfect separation of coffee from cream, which is, after all, the signature of the drink.
Click Play to See This Irish Coffee Recipe Come Together
- 1 1/2 ounces Irish whiskey
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- Hot brewed coffee, to top
- Garnish: whipped cream
Fill an Irish Coffee mug with hot water, let sit for 2 minutes, then discard the water.
Add the whiskey and sugar to the heated glass, fill with the coffee, and stir.
Top with an inch of unsweetened lightly whipped cream.