Irish Coffee

On January 25th, we celebrate Irish Coffee Day.

The notion of enhancing coffee with sugar, spirits, and cream dates back to the 19th century. Viennese coffee houses had been serving coffee cocktails with various spirits since the mid-1800s, offering a dozen varieties by the early 20th century. Meanwhile, in France during the same era, a mixture of coffee and strong alcohol known as Gloria was quite popular.

However, the modern cocktail we now know, featuring Irish whiskey, coffee, and cream, and celebrated in many countries, found its origins in Ireland in 1943, with a touch of aviation history.

In 1939, the dawn of commercial transatlantic flights had arrived. During this era, substantial flying boats were the preferred aircraft for these long-haul journeys. These flying boats could only carry sufficient fuel for the transoceanic crossing. Consequently, European aviation authorities sought a strategic location, one in proximity to America and featuring a convenient port. Foynes, situated along the Irish coast, emerged as the prime choice.
Shortly thereafter, as larger land-based planes capable of using runways became available and suitable airports accommodating these larger aircraft were constructed, operations were shifted to Shannon, a mere 15 kilometers away. However, during the period of our focus, the entire commercial transatlantic network was centered around Foynes.

One stormy day in 1943, a Pan American flight from Foynes to New York was forced to return due to inclement weather, leaving cold and weary passengers back at Foynes. In an effort to warm them up, Joe Sheridan, the cook at the airport’s restaurant, prepared coffee, adding sugar, cream, and whiskey. When asked by a passenger if it was Brazilian coffee, Sheridan replied, “No, it’s Irish Coffee.” And thus, Irish Coffee (or Cafe Gaelach) became the signature drink at Foynes and later Shannon.

Irish Coffee made its way to America through Stanton Delaplane, a writer for the popular San Francisco Chronicle. Delaplane fell in love with the drink while visiting Europe and published numerous articles about it. He shared his passion with Jack Koeppler, the owner of San Francisco’s Buena Vista cafe. In 1952, they embarked on a quest for an authentic Irish Coffee. Koeppler even flew to Ireland to consult Joe Sheridan himself. Their collaboration left a deep impression on Sheridan, who eventually settled in San Francisco. This collaboration paved the way for Buena Vista to introduce Irish Coffee to American shores.

This account represents the prevailing narrative of Irish Coffee’s origins. Nevertheless, there are alternate theories. Some skeptics propose that Sheridan might not have been the true inventor, suggesting he adopted the idea from a café in Dublin. Conversely, there’s a perspective that credits Delaplane with introducing the concept to America, with Koeppler playing a crucial role in its development. Interestingly, a rudimentary version of the Irish Coffee recipe had surfaced in New York several years before Koeppler’s involvement, but it failed to gain traction. Thus, the formal and widespread recognition of Irish Coffee as we know it today is often attributed to the collective efforts of Sheridan, Delaplane, and Koeppler.

Recipe according to IBA.

-1 2/3 oz/50 ml Irish Whiskey
-4 oz/120 ml Hot Coffee
-1 2/3 oz/50 ml Fresh Cream (chilled)
-1 teaspoon Sugar

Pour hot coffee into a preheated glass. Add sugar and whiskey and stir until dissolved. Carefully pour thick cream on top of the coffee using the back of the spoon. The lair of the cream should float on the coffee without mixing. The cream can be wisped gently before pouring.

Irish Coffee mug

Of course, there are numerous variations of Irish coffee, where Irish whiskey is replaced with another spirit:
Highland Coffee – with scotch
Jamaican Coffee – with rum
Amaretto Coffee – with Amaretto
Bavarian Coffee – with schnapps and coffee liqueur
Café Amore – with Amaretto and brandy
Calypso Coffee – with coffee liqueur and dark rum
Mexican Coffee – with coffee liqueur and tequila
Royal Coffee – with cognac
Spanish Coffee – with coffee liqueur and rum
Turkish coffee – with vodka and cardamon
Russian Coffee – with vodka
Bailey’s coffee – with Baileys
And so on, and so on…

However, for purists like me, there’s nothing quite like the classic Irish Coffee. If you share my love for this delightful concoction, why not enjoy a glass today in celebration? Cheers!

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