The best classic cocktails always seem to come with a fuzzy backstory, part word-of-mouth, part myth-making. The Irish Coffee, however, is based more on truth than fiction, likely because there may still be people alive to tell its tale.
Back in the 1940s, before large airports existed around the world, Pan American flying boats—passenger planes that could perform water landings—were regularly making journeys across the Atlantic. One of the stops the airline made was at Foynes, in Ireland, on the banks of the Shannon Estuary. A local chef by the name of Joe Sheridan would greet passengers with a cup of hot coffee to which he added a little Irish whiskey. It’s said a passenger once asked Sheridan if the coffee they were drinking was Brazilian. Sheridan answered no. It was Irish.
By 1945, the Irish Coffee was being served at the much larger Shannon airport across the estuary in County Clare. A restaurant bearing Sheridan’s name is still in operation. But it wasn’t until 1952 when travel writer Stanton Delaplane was traveling through the airport that the Irish Coffee, now topped with a float of cream, would make its own journey across the pond.
Delaplane enjoyed the hot cocktail so much that he brought the recipe back home with him to San Francisco, where he introduced it to George Freeberg and Jack Koeppler, the owners of The Buena Vista Cafe. The café on Hyde Street is considered the birthplace of the Irish Coffee in America, where it’s still served today.
Over the years, Sheridan’s creation, like so many of the best classic cocktails, has welcomed countless interpretations, turning what was essentially an airport welcome tipple into something, well, just as elevated. These are three riffs on the Irish Coffee that are worth the caffeine buzz.
Listed under the “Hot Helpers” category on the drinks menu at Fort Defiance in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, this Irish Coffee was once dubbed "the best in the known world" by The New York Times. Owner St. John Frizell enjoys reworking old drinks to perfect the recipes. He found the Irish Coffee particularly challenging as it’s a drink most people know yet few have been served a well-made version of.
He started with the most important component, the coffee. Fort Defiance uses a shot of Counter Culture espresso in its Irish Coffee and adds Powers Irish whiskey, simple syrup and a float of cream on top.
“The key to a great Irish Coffee, besides quality ingredients, is keeping the hot part of the drink piping hot and the cold part very cold,” says Frizell. “The pleasure of the drink is that first sip, when you get a little hot and a little cold in your mouth at the same time. Without that experience, the drink is just a sweet coffee with booze in it.”
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Ray Burns, the owner of Prohibition in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., says there’s never a wrong time of year to drink an Irish Coffee, but it’s especially perfect for winter sipping.
“As Irishmen, we take our Irish Coffee very seriously. The Gran Rosta Coffee has become one of our signature drinks at both Prohibition locations,” Burns says of the drink, which derives its name from the Gaelic words for “popcorn.” “The key to the drink is Teeling Irish whiskey, but the secret ingredient is a sprinkling of popcorn powder on top.”
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Jerry Slater, a bartender and forthcoming owner of The Expat in Athens, Ga., and co-author of “The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails”—has created a Southern take on the Irish Coffee using New Southern Revival sorghum whiskey, from High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston, and dark-roast coffee.
Slater devised this riff on the cocktail last year while participating in the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. He says what is usually a mild time of year in the Holy City turned out to be a cold, wet and windy weekend on the harbor. Slater took shelter at King Bean Coffee Roasters on its front porch with a bottle of High Wire’s sorghum whiskey and a table full of coffee mugs.
Slater starts by adding the sorghum whiskey and demerara simple syrup to a coffee mug. He then adds high-quality dark-roast coffee and tops the cocktail with soft whipped cream. The result is a much more grain-forward, slightly richer version of the drink.
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Mixing your cocktail