Coffee is an anytime beverage: any time of year, any time of day. The same goes for whiskey, though I suppose some might argue the “any time of day” part. Either way, put these favorites together and you are just two ingredients shy of the stately Irish coffee (not to be confused, of course, with Irish Coffee, the Canadian talk show from 1969). Add a little brown sugar and thick freshly whipped cream – not Bailey’s Irish Cream if we’re talking the classic version, which we are – and the result is a satisfying mug of gold. Because this drink’s namesake conjures centuries’ worth of tradition and culture, it’s easy to believe that Irish coffee has been around as long as the shamrock. This is not the case.
In the pre-World War II era, the transatlantic transportation method of choice
– and necessity – was the flying boat or seaplane. (Pan Am even had its own fleet of these bad boys.) The near 20-hour flight from America to Port of Foynes, the last port of call on the eastern shore of Ireland at this time, was rough. Upon arrival, passengers were greeted not only with the miserable Irish weather, but also with a boat ride to the real terminal from the seaplane base. Sound like they were in need of some warmth and a stiff drink?
Brendan O’Regan, manager of the popular restaurant in the Foynes terminal, thought so. The story goes that after a particularly nasty spell of weather in 1942, O’Regan asked his chef, Joe Sheridan, to create something that would warm both the chilled bodies and the tired spirits of the passengers as they arrived. Chef Sheridan developed a pleasantly reviving and soothing hot beverage, which also showcased Ireland’s whiskey: Irish coffee was born. Ireland’s version of arrival hospitality is much better than a bee-attracting Hawaiian lei, don’t you think?
A few years later, Shannon International Airport opened and by that time, Sheridan had perfected his recipe. One of its travelers was the owner of San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café, who brought the recipe home and began serving the first Irish coffees on this side of the pond in 1952.
It’s pretty easy to make a traditional Irish coffee. Add the strongest coffee you can tolerate to Irish whiskey and brown sugar, mix very well, and top with a layer of freshly whipped cream. Because the flavor of Irish coffee is only truly achieved by sipping through the top layer of cream, you want to use the good stuff. This is one corner you shouldn’t cut. Supermarket whipping cream is so pasteurized that it does not float well and instead melts into the coffee, where it can curdle. Try to get your hands on the least treated cream you can find.
Your efforts for authenticity will be rewarded. And because high-grade coffee is velvety by nature, it complements the cream well. The molasses from the brown sugar adds depth with a touch of sweet, balancing the bite of the whiskey. This is rich, sensual drink making. You’ll notice that Bailey’s Irish Cream is not present in the recipe. Though Bailey’s is an Irish spirit that’s made with cream and whiskey, using it here produces the Irish coffee’s over-processed, overly sweet cousin. Will it be delicious? Yes. But I encourage you to take a couple passes at the original version. It will be delicious on a whole other level.
Still, some of you will want the Bailey’s, and that’s okay. According to Dawn Stickland, bartender at Seekonk’s Old Grist Mill Tavern, “Sometimes people prefer it a bit creamier, so we put a little Bailey’s in. The wintertime is the perfect time for hot drinks, and a lot of people seem to love a good traditional Irish Coffee.”
Sadly, the Foynes port is no longer operational, but the Shannon Airport displays a plaque in honor of Chef Sheridan. To this day, the people of Foynes celebrate Irish coffee with a festival in the summer and the World Irish Coffee Championship, where bartenders travel from all over the world to compete. Thankfully, we only have to travel as far as the supermarket to make the Irish coffee of the old country.