This Is Our Simple and Favorite Variation on an Irish Coffee
Sugar, coffee, cream and Irish whiskey — with a slight twist on each ingredient
Provided you’re drinking it responsibly, the Irish Coffee is a great cocktail for any time and any place. And for Ireland and its whiskey industry, it was a game changer.
“This is the cocktail that gave the Irish whiskey category a lifeline,” as Kilbeggan Distilling Co. U.S. Brand Ambassador Michael Egan tell us. “Before that, the industry was on its knees.”
The actual story of the Irish coffee has been told many times, but a brief reminder: the whiskey industry in Ireland took some big hits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between wars, then trade wars, a domestic temperance movement, Prohibition (the U.S. was Irish whiskey’s top export market), a lack of technical innovation within the industry and so on, the once-dominant brown spirit saw its influence diminish and a majority of its distilleries disappear.
The legend of the spirit’s revival starts at the Foynes Airport in the midwest of Ireland in 1942, where a seaplane on its way from New York to Rome ran into engine trouble and landed. A chef at the airport, Joe Sheridan, whipped up a hot drink of coffee, cream, Irish whiskey and sugar. One passenger, a San Francisco newspaper writer named Stanton Delaplane, became obsessed with this “Gaelic coffee,” and his passion eventually led to the drink’s recreation at the Buena Vista Cafe a decade later; that SF institution now serves (in non-pandemic times) over 1,000 Irish coffees per day.
“It’s easy to see why the drink is so widely regarded,” says Egan. “It’s easy to make, fresh tasting and it’ll disguise a nice pour of whiskey. You can walk into an Irish pub or restaurant anywhere in the world and get one.” (The Irish coffee is apparently the third-most common cocktail on most menus, after the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.)
I’ve tried several Irish coffees over the past few months, and there are several great ways to mix one. Using Slane as your hooch will add some fruit and butterscotch notes, thanks to the subtle influence of the Oloroso sherry casks in the triple-maturation process. Perennial world’s best bar The Dead Rabbit utilizes Bushmills, which gives the coffee a lighter lift (bonus, you can order an Irish coffee kit directly from them). And during different tastings and experimentations, I’ve played around with the coffee — some places like San Francisco’s Red Bay roast limited-edition beans designed to pair well with Irish coffees — and also tried out different garnishes and hacks to the sugar and cream.
For my tweaked recipe below, I took a recipe I liked via Kilbeggan and modified it slightly. Originally, they call for their Single Grain, a blended whiskey with a higher malt content (and higher ABV) that adds some fruity and citrus notes (which works well with coffee). In lieu of that, I opted for the Kilbeggan Single Pot Still, my favorite Irish whiskey of last year and one with a distinctive creamy, oat-forward flavor — and also a slightly higher-than-average ABV, so the whiskey doesn’t get lost.
That recipe is below. For more excellent hacks on Irish coffees, go here.
Traditional Irish Coffee
- 1.5 parts Kilbeggan Single Pot Still
- 1 tbsp brown sugar syrup (2:1 brown sugar to water. I added a cinnamon stick and a vanilla bean.)
- 3 parts freshly brewed coffee (I prefer a French press and a darker roast)
- 3 parts lightly whipped heavy cream*
- Grated nutmeg
Rinse coffee glass with hot water; then add brown sugar syrup and Kilbeggan to glass. Fill mug with coffee.
*Whip the heavy cream in the squeeze bottle for approx. 30-45 seconds with one ice cube, until it feels thick and heavy. Pour gently into the glass over the back of a spoon. I also threw in a drop or two of the whiskey and vanilla extract.
Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg. Orange peel or cinnamon also work here.
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