Irish Coffee Recipe for St. Patrick’s Day
By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor. March 16, 2012
One of the most delicious drinks when made correctly, Irish coffee also has the misfortune of being one of the most misinterpreted.
Irish coffee is not what happens when someone says, “How about we make this coffee Irish?” and sloshes Jack Daniels into a paper cup. It does not involve Baileys, Kaluah, Irish cream flavored International Delight, ice cream, or whipped cream from an aerosol can. There are no sprinkles or garnishes. These concoctions may be enjoyable in their own right, but they are not Irish coffee.
A good Irish coffee comes served in a stemmed, clear glass – its appearance being half the fun. It looks, with it’s dark brown body and creamy top, something like Guinness, and I’ve always thought that it tastes the way a lot of people secretly hope Guinness will taste when they first try it. The combination of coffee and whiskey, strong and slightly sweet, picks you up and puts you down, while the cool cream is sheer indulgence.
Many people who are passionate about Irish coffee come from families where the drink has a special story or occasion. In my case, it’s the night cap used to draw every Thanksgiving and Christmas to a close, and the perfect use for heavy cream going begging (or slyly set aside).
For my mother, who grew up in Ireland, Irish coffee was for special occasions. Her family didn’t make it at home, but it was frequently offered at receptions or functions as a fancy addition to the evening’s fare. Her favorite Irish coffee memory is of stopping off at an event for Listowel Writer’s Week with her parents, en route to the airport for a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Her mother, who didn’t usually drink, indulged in two Irish coffees and laughed the whole way to France. It wasn’t until my mother moved to America that she started making Irish coffee herself, mostly because when she ordered one at a bar or restaurant, it never turned out quite the way she wanted.
My father, an Irish American, first had Irish coffee at Shannon Airport, across the river from Foynes, where it’s said to have been invented and popularized by a chef named Joe Sheridan in the 1940s. On a trip to San Francisco, he made a point of going to the Buena Vista Café, which claims to have perfected the drink on U.S. soil in 1952. He was horrified to be asked “do you want jimmies with that?” but since the recipe on their website does not mention anything about sprinkles, he can only hope that was a one-time thing. A New Yorker, he credits Jim Downey, the owner of the famous, long-closed Downey’s Steakhouse on 45th and 8th, with introducing the drink to the East Coast in the ’40s. A copper tank of coffee was displayed in the window.
They aren’t exactly sure when, but eventually Irish coffee during the holidays became a tradition for my parents – one I was terribly envious of until I was allowed to share in it. We always make them in the whimsical crystal snifters etched with shamrocks that my great-aunt gave to my mother as a wedding present, and I can’t imagine a more perfect glass.
Despite all of the fuss and emphasis on doing it right, Irish coffee is pretty easy to make. You just need Irish whiskey (Jameson is my favorite for this purpose, since it’s sweet and fairly mellow), freshly brewed coffee and cold heavy cream.
Whip the cream lightly, just until little peaks start to form.
While the coffee is brewing, warm the glass by filling it about half-way with hot water. If the glass is delicate, rest a spoon in it before pouring the water – this will absorb some of the heat and prevent it from cracking.
Pour out the hot water and scoop a teaspoon of brown sugar or sugar in the raw into the bottom of the glass. White sugar will work too, but the taste doesn’t blend quite as well.
With the whiskey, eyeballing it is perfectly acceptable. If you really want to taste it, fill about 1/4 of the glass.
Pour in freshly brewed coffee until the glass is about 3/4 of the way full. A Vienna roast works nicely since it blends instead of overwhelming, but whatever coffee is on hand should do. Stir just enough to dissolve the sugar at the bottom of the glass.
To top it all off, let the cream slide off the back of a spoon and onto the surface of the liquid – gently, so that it floats instead of sinking.
Don’t stir, it will ruin the delicious effect of the warm coffee and whiskey cutting through the cream. But be okay with the fact that the layers might merge a bit as the cream melts and you sip away, and enjoy.