How to Make the Perfect Irish Coffee

How to Make the Perfect Irish Coffee
The perfect Irish Coffee.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and you’ve imbibed your customary pint or three (or four or five) of Guinness and now you’re settled in at the bar, waiting for your designated driver to shuttle your tipsy self safely home. Good for you! Why not reward yourself with an Irish Coffee?

Now you may have experienced a sad, pale imitation of Irish Coffee1, be it enthroned in a place of honor at your local Irish pub, or found only far down the menu at your local bar… a cuppa joe, a jigger of whiskey, and a towering pile of whipped cream with — saints preserve us — a cherry on top. So, on second thought, maybe it’s better to wait till you’re safely returned to your own kitchen, where you can brew up an Irish Coffee that’s worth the wait.

To begin, we need to choose our whiskey.2 There’s one camp that swears by Jameson. There’s another that swears by Bushmills. Furthermore, these camps have a long history of swearing at each other.3 We are going to neatly sidestep this whole brouhaha by choosing Tullamore Dew, instead. No, not because we are diplomatic souls, but because Tullamore Dew is a better whiskey. (Whoops. There goes another argument.)

Having chosen our spirits, we can now choose our coffee. Why? Because unlike the folks behind the bar at the pub, we’re not going to use whatever mass-market, canned coffee they’ve got stewing on a hot-plate. Unlike them, we actually give a damn about the coffee. That’s why.

The flavors and aromas of Tullamore Dew are malty, somewhat sweet, with lemony notes and a hint of charred wood. I think these flavors play nicely with an Indonesian coffee, much as though the whiskey were the Central American component in a Central / Indo coffee blend. A medium-roast Sumatran coffee does the job nicely, though a darker-roasted Guatemalan coffee would do in a pinch. If you insist on Jameson for your whiskey — Jameson being a sweet, heavy-bodied whiskey — then reverse the recipe, use the Jameson as you would the Indonesian component and pair it with a mildly brisk coffee from Panama or Colombia, maybe a dark-roasted Costa Rica. And if you really, really want to use Bushmills, well… why not just have another Guinness and call it a night?

The Recipe:

The perfect Irish Coffee.

The perfect Irish Coffee.

  • One ounce Irish Whiskey
  • Five ounces fresh-brewed coffee
  • Two teaspoons light brown sugar
  • About two tablespoons heavy cream

Hardware:

  • Footed Irish Coffee glass, or whatever you’ve got that’s clear, heat-safe and holds 8 ounces.
  • Small bowl and whisk, or cocktail shaker
  • A tablespoon

The Prep Work:

Preheat your glass with hot water. Brew coffee. Pour a couple of tablespoons (per drink) of heavy cream into bowl and whisk lightly, only until the cream takes on some body. We’re not making whipped cream here, only thickening it a bit. (If you’ve got mad mixmaster skills and you’re serving a crowd you can do this with a cocktail shaker.)

Putting it all together:

Dump the hot water from your glass. Pour in one ounce of whiskey, and spoon in the brown sugar. Mix the whiskey and sugar together; they’ll warm nicely from the heat of the glass. Add fresh-brewed coffee to within an inch of the top of the glass. Pour slightly thickened cream over the back of a tablespoon to rest, gently, in a layer on top of the coffee. A tip: don’t skip the sugar, even if you’re not generally inclined to take a sweetened cup. The presence of the sugar helps to float the cream on top. Besides, it tastes wicked good.

Don’t stir! Much of the pleasure of this drink comes from the contrast of the hot, sweet, spirited coffee through the cooler layer of cream floated on top. If any of your guests should stir their Irish Coffee, a wicked penalty is simply to not make them another, no matter how much they beg.

Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!


Notes and Links

  1. There’s a bit of an historical kerfuffle over where Irish Coffee first landed in the United States. The Buena Vista Cafe, at the foot of the Powell & Hyde Street cable car line in San Francisco makes a good claim. So does Tom Bergin’s Tavern in Los Angeles. The original mixmaster, however, was Joseph Sheridan, chef at the seaport of Foynes, in County Limerick, Ireland. Foynes served as the port of call for flying boat service in the 1930s, and Joe took to welcoming chilled and weary airline passengers with hot coffee spiked with a slug of Irish Whiskey. We can well imagine this made Joe a popular guy.
  2. Let’s get this straight first off… Irish Whiskey is indeed spelled with an ‘e’. It’s the Scotch counterpart that’s lost its latter vowel… presumably wandering somewhere in the heathered highlands, even still.
  3. Bushmill’s is distilled in Protestant Northern Ireland, Jameson’s in the Catholic south. Order the wrong whiskey in the wrong pub and you’re likely to find yourself shown the door, at a minimum.