How To Make The Best Irish Coffee You’ve Ever Had
Hint: The end result should resemble a Guinness, dark with a smooth white head on top.
Irish coffee is one of those drinks that everyone has heard about and probably tasted, but for which no standard recipe or ratio comes to mind. Often, the drink is served in a far-too-large, stemmed glass, and made up of a dealer’s choice blend of coffee, cream, and sugar, if not just coffee and Irish Cream liqueur, and then there’s a dollop of whipped cream on top that comes out of a can. The creation looks like a latte in a fancy glass, and lacks entirely the visual appeal and, importantly, proper coffee to whiskey to sugar ratio that was intended by its creator 80 years ago. A true Irish Coffee should look like a Guinness, black with a smooth white head; it should have a small but strong pour of coffee so you don’t lose the taste of the whisky; and you should drink it through the cream at the top instead of stirring it all up.
Irish Coffee was invented at an airport terminal restaurant in Ireland in 1943. During WWII, the Foynes Airport, in County Limerick, was one of the busiest in the world. Just a few years earlier, in 1939, the Pan Am “Yankee Clipper” made the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight from the USA and landed at Foynes. Soon many massive seaplanes called flying boats were taking passengers from the USA to the destination. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller even had an Irish Coffee in the airport after an Atlantic crossing.
The airport restaurant’s chef, Joe Sheridan, invented the drink after he was asked by his head of catering, Brendan O’Regan, as a special treat for a plane full of passengers who’d been forced to turn around en route to New York because of bad weather. His gift for this cold and jostled crowd was the Irish Coffee. At the time, Sheridan is said to have shown it off to O’Regan proudly, saying, “How about that for eye appeal?”
Much like the Old Fashioned, the Irish Coffee has certainly had other forms throughout the years that masked its original appeal. Thanks to modern mixologists forever reviving cocktail recipes that have failed the game of telephone through the years and become unrecognizable, there are now many bars and pubs where you can order an Irish Coffee that’s true to Sheridan’s original.
One such bar is New York City’s, The Dead Rabbit, an award-winning Irish pub and cocktail hub that boasts six Irish Coffee variations on their bar menu. The cocktail is pushed even further with creative customizations of every ingredient –– mixing sweeteners for added depth, using very select coffee, and cream with a specific fat content. As winter tiptoes ever closer and hot cocktails are top of mind, we asked Dead Rabbit’s Bar Director, Ian Alexander, for his tips on how to make an exceptional Irish Coffee.
6 Pro Tips for Mastering Irish Coffee
1. Use The Right Irish Whiskey
“We find Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey to be the perfect match for the Irish Coffee,” says Alexander. “It mixes beautifully with the dark roast coffee and demerara sugar.” Alexander also likes Keepers Heart Irish + American Whiskey, which “adds a subtle spice note that compliments the drink.” Other Irish whiskies used at Dead Rabbit included Lost Irish, in their frozen Irish Coffee, and Jameson Stout Cask Finish, in their Irish Coffee Alexander.
The Foynes Museum uses Powers Irish Whiskey at their bar, on the grounds of the original terminal where the Irish Coffee was invented. Tullamore D.E.W. was (and still is) used in the version that first made it to the US, when it landed at the Buena Vista pub in San Francisco. (Though Tom Bergin’s in Los Angeles also claims this distinction).
2. Choose Dark Sugar in Granular, Cube, Or Rich Syrup Form
“For sugar, we prefer demerara for its dark and rich flavor profile,” says Alexander. “We also add in a small amount of molasses to deepen it even further.” At Dead Rabbit, Alexander uses a Rich Demerara-Molasses Syrup in his Irish Coffee. Rich syrups use two parts of sugar to one part water, instead of the 1:1 ration of Simple Syrup. This means you can add the same amount of sweetness to a drink, but with less dilution. Alexander adds a small amount of Molasses to the syrup for added depth of flavor. The original Foynes’ recipe calls for brown sugar.
3. Use Good, Fresh, and Strong Coffee
“A medium to dark roast will do just fine,” says Alexander. At Dead Rabbit, he says, they use a Colombian blend that is roasted to their specs by Calendar Coffee in Galway, Ireland. “They’ve an incredible team and allow us to make the ideal Irish Coffee.”
4. Use Heavy Cream High in Fat
When it comes to an Irish Coffee, the dollop of cream is the eye-catcher and entrance point. At the Dead Rabbit, they like Dairyland cream. “It needs to be 35-40% milk fat so it can set properly,” says Alexander. This tip is seconded by Kevin Pigott, the Irish Global Ambassador for Tullamore D.E.W., who says, “when it comes to the cream, the higher the fat content the better so it can sit on top of the cocktail.”
5. Pick the Right Glass
“I’ll always recommend a Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee glass,” says Alexander. “It was designed to hold all the ingredients in balance.” In general, this is a stemmed glass with a V shape that is smaller than you’d expect, holding about 6 ounces.
6. Heat the Glass First
“Don’t forget to preheat the glass to keep your cocktail as warm as possible,” urges Pigott. At Dead Rabbit, Alexander keeps his coffee and sugar mix together at 80 C (176-degrees Fahrenheit) in a sous vide, “so we don’t need to heat the glass.” He recommends that to heat the glass without this pro setup, “simply boil some water and pour a few ounces in your glass, let it sit for a minute then discard the water.”
Two Irish Coffee Recipes To Make
The original 1943 Irish Coffee
Made by Jim Sheridan at Foynes Airport
- Preheat your Foynes Irish coffee glass by filling it with boiling water for 5 seconds, then pour the water out.
- Add 1 teaspoon of brown sugar and a good measure of Irish whiskey into the warmed glass. (they use Powers Irish Whiskey)
- Fill the glass to within 1 cm of the brim with hot, strong black coffee. Stir well to dissolve all the brown sugar.
- Carefully pour lightly whipped cream over the back of a spoon so that it floats on top of the coffee.
- Do not stir after adding the cream; optimal flavor comes from drinking the coffee and Irish whiskey through the cream.
The Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee
Courtesy of Ian Alexander
- 1 oz Bushmills Original
- .625 oz Rich Demerara-Molasses Syrup
- ~3.5 oz Calendar Coffee
- Layer cream on top (~1.5 oz)
- 1. In glass stir whiskey with 80 C heated coffee and sugar mixture.
- 2. Layer cream on top.