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When the average drinker hears “Irish Coffee,” it, more often than not, conjures visions of a mediocre mixture of coffee, whiskey, and Baileys Irish cream. “Before ever stepping foot into The Dead Rabbit I barely understood what a real Irish Coffee was,” Samantha Casuga, head bartender at The Dead Rabbit, explains. “I think I haphazardly slipped Jameson into my black, lukewarm coffee on St. Patrick's Day and probably thought that's what it was.” Casuga isn’t alone in that thought.
Sadly, this bastardized version of the cocktail has become more popular than its classic form: an artful balance of freshly whipped cream layered on top of a blend of medium roast coffee, Irish whiskey, and demerara syrup. “To me the Irish Coffee is a humble, simple drink that encompasses comfort, tradition, and a sense of familiarity—much like the values of Irish hospitality,” Casuga says.
A proper Irish Coffee should be rich, inviting, warming, and subtly complex —when built in its authentic structure, it stands as one of the best cold weather tipples there is. “For us [from Ireland] an Irish coffee is a perfect physical representation of the emotional warmth we wish to show our guests,” Aaron Wall, co-owner of the London-based Irish cocktail bar Homeboy Bar, says. “It’s the closest thing we can get to giving a hug these days.” This sentiment is in alignment with how the Irish Coffee became popularized in the first place: at the Foynes terminal building.
In the winter of 1943, a flight departed from Ireland with the destination of New York, but the captain of the plane decided to turn the flight around after flying for several hours in bad weather to wait for safer conditions. Upon the plane’s return, the passengers settled in and got a bite to eat, and something to calm their nerves. They were welcomed with a coffee cocktail topped with freshly whipped cream, courtesy of bartender and chef, Joe Sheridan. Whilst most sources credit Foynes as the Irish Coffee’s place of origin, it wasn’t Sheridan’s first time serving that cocktail. He learned how to make the “whiskey coffee,” as it was originally named, from a man by the name of Michael Nugent who owned the Dolphin Hotel in Dublin, which is where the Irish Coffee was first served, and truly originated. What Sheridan and Foynes can be credited with, however, is the globalization, and popularization, of the Irish Coffee after he used his wit and bar savvy to deliver a hospitable serve for guests in their time of need.
The Irish Coffee is a thing of beauty, and it deserves to be crafted to perfection every single time. To ensure no detail is spared, and that it delivers on both comfort and flavor, we consulted with bar experts from around the world to get their take on how to make one properly. Here are their pro-tips.
Don’t Sleep on the Cream
The first thing you’ll notice about a proper Irish Coffee is the head of fresh, lightly whipped, cream. Without this component, the drink loses its depth and complexity. “We're often asked what we put into the cream and the answer is simple: cream,” Casuga says. “We use a heavy cream, and just shake it enough to make it thick, but still pourable. By keeping the cream in its natural state (not sweetening it like you would whipped cream) it acts as a way to balance the sweet coffee part of the drink.”
Wall provides some intuitive advice for knowing when the cream is ready to be layered. “With the cream, my advice is shake it near your ear and wait for the sound to turn from flip to flop,” he says. Once it’s thickened, layer the cream on top of the base blend by pouring it over the back of a bar spoon.
Buy Good Coffee and Brew It Right
There are two components of the coffee that really matter: the temperature, and flavor. A weak, watered down coffee that provides little flavor makes for a flabby, underwhelming drink. The coffee should be hot (not scalding), flavorfully bitter, and be able to balance the sweet elements in the drink.
“Irish Coffee works very well with natural processed or honey processed coffees from South America with notes of candied fruits, chocolate, and sugarcane,” says Martin Hudak, global brand ambassador for Mr Black cold brew coffee liqueur and co-founder of the Sydney’s award-winning cocktail bar, Maybe Sammy. “Ideally brewed as a filtered coffee where you can have a nice clear black cup of it.”
Use a French Press, or pour-over, and ask your local coffee roaster for a recommendation. (You can use blends from large producers, but I always opt for supporting small businesses if possible—I recently used a Papua New Guinea coffee by Cozz Coffee in an Irish Coffee and it was perfectly balanced.)
The next detail to pay attention to is the temperature—you want to ensure there is a contrast between the cool cream, and hot coffee for textural complexity. “Temperature is everything,” Marlowe Johnson, beverage director at Flowers of Vietnam, says. “I can’t overstate that enough. [H]eat is finicky and fleeting. The coffee itself should be between 75 and 85 degrees [Fahrenheit], but it’s equally important to heat everything else [i.e the glass and syrup] beforehand.
Dial-In the Technique and Ratios
The Irish Coffee is a simple cocktail to make, but the devil is in the details. Start with a hot mug by pouring some boiling water and letting it sit for a minute, then toss in the sink,” said Tyson Buhler, national beverage director for Death & Co. “Just like a frozen glass for a Martini, the proper temperature for your glassware is crucial to great cocktails. Add the sugar [syrup], whiskey, and coffee and give it a quick stir. [Lastly] you want the cream to be just from the refrigerator to be sure it's cold. Because the cream is now thickened, it should layer on top of the drink without falling into the cocktail but to be sure you can pour slowly over the back of a spoon placed just above the cocktail.”
The one thing that’s gone unmentioned is the whiskey. Dublin-born Wall from London’s Homeboy says there is no such thing as a bad Irish whiskey, but treat yourself with a pot still Irish whiskey should you really care. Glendalough, Redbreast, Kilbeggan, and Bushmills are all brands to note. If you follow these steps, the correct ratios, and use quality ingredients, you’ve just taken your Irish Coffee game from mediocre to marvelous.
Irish Coffee Recipe
1 ¼ ounce Irish whiskey
½ ounce demerara syrup*
3 ½ ounces coffee
Topped with lightly whipped heavy cream
Garnish with nutmeg
Method: Add boiling water to your Irish Coffee glass to heat, then dump. Then add whiskey, demerara syrup and hot coffee to the glass, leaving about an index finger’s worth of space at the top of the glass for the cream. Layer with freshly whipped cream (pour over the back of the bar spoon), and garnish with a dusting of nutmeg.