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in: Food & Drink, Living

• Last updated: June 1, 2021

How to Make the Perfect Irish Coffee

When it comes to St. Patty’s Day drinks, you have a few classics to choose from: Guinness beer (which you can also make bread with), whiskey ginger, and of course, Irish coffee. 

Whether served morning, afternoon, or evening on March 17th (or any day you’re feeling particularly Irish!), a hot Irish coffee is a delectable cocktail that anyone can make — no shaking needed, no hard-to-find ingredients necessary. 

The genesis of Irish coffee — a simple mixture of coffee, sugar, cream, and whiskey — is a little more straightforward than most cocktails. Though coffee and spirits have long been mixed, the Irish coffee took off in the 1940s when a chef at an airport on the west coast of Ireland started adding a nip of whiskey to the coffees of disembarking passengers. Consider that many of those coffees already had cream and sugar, and a famous cocktail was born. 

That drink was then brought to America in the 1950s by a San Fransiscan travel writer who worked to replicate the recipe at the Buena Vista Cafe, in the heart of the Fisherman’s Wharf district. After some fiddling, they nailed the formulation and preparation, and have been serving Irish coffees ever since, to the tune of a few thousand per day. It’s the place to go if you want a quintessential Irish coffee (in America, that is). I, in fact, became enamored with the drink after a visit to the cafe back in 2014, after attending an AoM book signing event. The Buena Vista freely gives out their recipe, which I’ve taken the liberty to recreate below. 

Slainte! 

A Brief Word on the Ingredients & Vessel

Coffee. Stick with something on the cheap end here, made in either a standard filter coffee pot or even a Keurig. (If you’re worried about caffeine, use decaf in place of full-strength joe.) I used a French press because it’s all I have; though I did use cheap Kroger brand coffee. At the Buena Vista Cafe, they use a middle-of-the-road coffee made in a filter brewer.

Why not use a high-end coffee? Because its complex flavors just don’t mix that well with booze. Both are very strong flavors and compete too much on the palette when combined. Allow the spirit to shine and leave the best coffee for your morning mug. Trust me on this one. 

Irish whiskey. Given the name of the drink, it should be obvious that you’re not going to use just any whiskey, but specifically Irish whiskey: Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Proper Twelve, Bushmills, Teeling. All are good — go with whichever you have a preference for. If you’re not familiar with Irish whiskey, Proper Twelve is a great bottle to have in your cupboard and one that I especially enjoy; Buena Vista Cafe uses Tullamore Dew exclusively. 

Sugar. The classic recipe uses sugar cubes, but who keeps sugar cubes anymore? There’s just no reason for it, in my opinion. The standard measurement is that one cube = 1 teaspoon sugar. You can use brown sugar as well, or even simple syrup. Vanilla simple syrup works particularly well here. 

Whipped Cream. Any whipped cream will do, though the store-bought variety will be a little thicker than intended. It should be a thickened layer on top of the drink rather than a stiff dollop. So if you’re making it fresh at home, whip until just thickened — called “soft peaks” in cooking parlance. You don’t want it to hold its shape. 

Vessel. Traditionally, this drink is served in an 8oz glass called an Irish coffee mug. It has a pedestal and a handle, and the glass allows you to see the layers of coffee and cream and makes for a really nice presentation. Just makes you feel fancy. Of course, if you don’t have these mugs, any ol’ coffee mug will do the trick just fine. 

The Classic Recipe and Preparation 

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp sugar (white, brown, or simple syrup) 
  • 4 oz coffee 
  • 1.5 oz Irish whiskey 
  • Whipped cream 

Directions

Start by putting the sugar in the bottom of the Irish coffee mug. Add ~4 ounces of hot coffee and stir it all up to dissolve the sugar. Add 1.5 ounces of Irish whiskey — don’t stir! — and then top with the fresh whipped cream. To make it a nice layer rather than an indelicate flop, carefully spoon the cream on top. It’ll make for a wonderful look in the mug. 

Sip the drink through the cream and enjoy! 

Variations 

If you feel like riffing on this theme, there are a few variations to keep in mind, which mostly just substitute various spirits in place of the Irish whiskey:

Iced Irish Coffee. Use cold brew coffee instead of hot coffee to turn a cool weather cocktail into a summer patio drink. 

Irish Cream Coffee. Use Baileys cream instead of whiskey. 

Caribbean Coffee. Use rum instead of whiskey. 

Highland Coffee. Use Scotch whisky instead of Irish whiskey. 

Russian Coffee. Use vodka instead of whiskey. 

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