The Secrets Behind the Perfect Irish Coffee
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.
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.
Paul Nolan has been with Buena Vista for 37 years and estimates that he’s poured an astounding three or four million Irish Coffees. Jack McGarry of New York City’s The Dead Rabbit developed the bar’s historically-based drinks program (which boasts the largest Irish whiskey selection in New York) and has mastered his own Irish Coffee recipe. Who better to divulge the secrets behind this deceptively simple drink than these highly-trained experts? With their help, you’ll soon learn that a perfect Irish Coffee is very much the sum of its parts.
The goblet of choice at Buena Vista? A dainty 6-ounce, stemmed glass that’s shaped to show off a snowcap of whipped cream. The tulip shape prevents an over-sized pour of coffee and keeps the balance of ingredients intact. Equally important is what happens before any coffee even hits the bottom. Always pre-heat 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.
Cubes or syrup? This is the question that will determine which type of sugar you use in your Irish Coffee. Buena Vista has always relied on C&H lumped cane sugar in its recipe. According to Nolan, the compact cubes ensure precise measurement and the cane sugar dissolves quickly and efficiently.
Jack McGarry takes a liquid approach with ¾ ounce of Demerara syrup instead. He prefers Demerara syrup to sugar cubes for its consistency and rich flavor that “acts as a beautiful binder” between his French press coffee and choice of whiskey.
The verdict? Choose the sweetener that fits your palate. Honor the time-tested recipe with old-fashioned cubes, or, if you fancy the caramelly depth of Demerara sugar, cook up a batch of syrup for swirling into your coffee. Both will soothe in equal measure.
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 exotic blends or strong roasts. “The coffee complements the drink but should never stand out,” he says. It’s all about the balance of flavors.
McGarry also avoids espresso-style coffee, which can result in an overly bitter drink that upends that delicate balance. At The Dead Rabbit, French press 100% Sumatra is king, and lends familiar bitterness backed by earthy chocolate notes.
Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey has been the dram of choice since the dawn of Irish Coffee. The original recipe called specifically for this smooth whiskey and deemed 1 ⅓ ounces the perfect amount. Buena Vista follows these recommendations to this day.
McGarry uses two whiskeys: one in The Dead Rabbit’s Taproom and a different one in the upstairs Parlor. The sweetness of Jameson Original marks the introductory version of Irish Coffee served in the Taproom, while the Parlor opts for Powers Signature Release, a single pot still Irish whiskey with a creamier, spicier edge that tempers the sweetness of the sugar.
Time for the big finale: 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. (If you don’t have a blender, McGarry suggests a protein shaker like athletes use.) Finding the sweet spot of your whipped cream takes practice. Under or over-whipping can cause the cream to drop through the coffee when you attempt to float it. The cream should be pourable, but not too thin or too thick.
But there’s hope for first-timers. 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. McGarry counters that “the crucial part of the cream is the fat content.” Cream that’s more than 36% fat makes for appropriately buoyant whipped cream that floats like a dream. Once you’ve got 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.
The Buena Vista Cafe’s Irish Coffee
Contributed by Paul Nolan
- 2 C&H Sugar cubes
- 6 ounces Brewed coffee
- 1 ⅓ ounces Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey
- Heavy cream, lightly whipped
Pre-heat a 6-ounce, heatproof glass by filling with hot water. Once warm, empty the glass. Add two sugar cubes to the glass, then pour over coffee until the glass is ¾ full. Stir thoroughly until the sugar is dissolved. Add 1 ⅓ ounces of whiskey to the coffee. Float a layer of whipped cream over the top of the coffee by pouring gently over a spoon.