History of Irish Coffee

Irish Coffee: Its History and The Original Recipe

History of Irish Coffee

Coffee and Whiskey: A Good Combination?

“Irish Coffee” … Is it from Ireland, and how has it changed over time with developments in coffee and whiskey?

Described by many as, “Creamy, yummy, silky, good”, Irish Coffee remains a vastly popular menu item in restaurants, pubs and bars of most cultural and ethnicity offerings, not just Irish!

Seemingly cultural-appropriated and geographically oriented foods aren’t always originated from the assumed named country or cultural reference.

For example, while General Tso’s chicken was invented by a Chinese person, the recipe and dish are not Chinese but rather originally invented in Taiwan and brought to America when the recipe inventor migrated to the States.

Similarly, Caesar salad sounds like it may have originated in Rome, Italy, but it was invested by an Italian expat with the name Caesar who was working in the States in the mid-1920s!

In the mood for Indian food? Well, Chicken Tikka Masala was invented in Glasgow, Scotland, when a customer at a Bangladeshi restaurant grumbled that his chicken tikka was too dry.

German Chocolate Cake isn’t from Germany at all, but was created and named “German’s chocolate cake,” when an American named Sam German created the dessert treat with mildly dark baking chocolate bar for Baker’s Chocolate Co. As the dish gained popularity the apostrophe and the “s” were omitted.

And finally, Apple Pie, with origins far older than Americans may care to know when claiming, “…as American as Apple Pie…” In fact, Dutch apple pies have serving as comfort food since around the 1500s.

And in England, author Jane Austen wrote about them. By the 1600s, over 70 types of apples were in England whereas America received its first apple tree in the 1800s!

What about Irish Coffee?

What is Irish Coffee

It is the case that Irish Coffee is, in fact, originated from Ireland. This much sought after spiked coffee drink spread across the globe, and is a lot more than just adding whiskey into a coffee cup and calling it an Irish Coffee cocktail.

The original Irish Coffee was created not at a bar, per se, but at a flying boat terminal in Foynes, Ireland, in October of 1943. People were drinking whiskey in their coffee with some sugar and whipped cream.

We learn at the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, also hosting the Irish Coffee Centre, that the flying boat terminal was home to an aircraft that was a huge seaplane of the 1930s, able to travel vastly long distances.

Pan American World Airways managed a fleet of these flying boats between New York and Ireland, and the first international passenger flights on the Atlantic came to the small village of Foynes, Ireland.

While the flying boats were not as dependable as a normal aircraft, they provided huge capacity but no pressurization so had to fly quite low and so more prone to weather conditions and temperature fluctuations, sometimes so tricky that the flying boat would have to change route or return and wait for improved weather.  

So yes, one day in October 1943, a flying boat departed from the Foynes terminal but had to turn back because of bad weather. When the news broke back at the terminal that the flying boat was returning to the terminal – communicated by Morse code! –the terminal chef and other staff were called back to work to prepare nourishment and refreshment to the tired and cold passengers.

Chef Joe Sheridan decided to pour some whiskey into the coffee to help warm the passengers once they deboarded. That was the beginning of Irish Coffee as far as we know.

Later, an official Irish Coffee recipe was documented by Sheridan, and was comprised of a five-step process of four simple ingredients: hot coffee, sugar, cream, and whiskey.

An original version of Irish Coffee is here:

  • Step one: preheat a glass with hot water; pour out the water. Next, add a teaspoon of brown sugar and “a good measure of Irish whiskey” into the warm glass.
  • Then stir together, followed with a  pour of hot coffee, and stir again. Finally, pour ever so slightly  whipped cream on top so it floats onto the hot coffee mixture, serve immediately and watch people enjoy.

It may not sound very innovative, but it really was! Sure, whiskey was popular in Ireland but the combination of coffee and whiskey was new and truly intended to offer extra warmth in that creative moment, not any sort of habit or treat or ritualistic tradition.

Whiskey sure does warm up a throat and stomach, and it wasn’t as harsh as a straight up drink when added to coffee as Sheridan did.

Simple But Yet Fancy Recipe

Don’t be mistaken about the simplicity of the correct recipe instructions where the layers of dark coffee against the white cream are a significant component of the drink, as well as the reason why it was and still is typically served in a glass rather than, opaque mug.

The eye appeal mattered and matters, and celebrities stars and other well-knowns were coming from the United States into Europe around that time, 1939 to 1947, as part of troop entertainment during the war, so customer service and impressive accommodation were important.

This is the recipe offered by Joe Sheridan, to make a true Irish Coffee:

  • Cream – Rich as an Irish Brogue
  • Coffee – Strong as a Friendly Hand
  • Sugar – Sweet as the tongue of a Rogue
  • Whiskey – Smooth as the Wit of the Land

According to the museum about Foynes terminal, people like John F. Kennedy passed through, as well as big stars like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and there are photos of Marilyn Monroe relaxing at the flying boat terminal, sipping on her Irish Coffee.

And this is how the drink came to the United States via the Atlantic Ocean travels — with this exposure to Irish Coffee and this sort of travel between the United States and Ireland.

Irish Coffee Comes to the United States

Irish Coffee Recipe

History records state that a journalist from San Francisco with the name Stanton Delaplane came through the terminal where he tried the drink and tried to duplicate it with the help of a friend named Koepple when he returned to the States.

The story also has it that the two friends got the coffee and whiskey parts right but the experimenting, according to an article in the SF Gate, “nearly killed Delaplane, who, after sampling dozens of failed experiments, nearly passed out on the cable car tracks.”

The outstanding challenge to figure out was to be able to have the cream float on top like Sheridan’s Irish coffee. Well apparently, San Francisco mayor at the time, George Christopher, who was also a dairy farmer, suggested that Delaplane and Koepple try to age the cream for 2 days before frothing it up, to help with consistency and mass, and it worked!

Into the 1950s, print advertisements about Irish Coffee were published in San Francisco and the popularity of the drink quickly grew. It wasn’t until much later when it showed up and grew in popularity on the east coast in places like New York.

Variations and Changes Over Time

So, what about variations of Irish Coffee over time? There are preferences of Bailey’s being added, shared with whiskey content in some ratio, or even used instead of whiskey. Some people add cinnamon and nutmeg. Some people garnish with chocolate shavings, or a sprinkling of brown sugar.

Some use all white sugar, and others use half white and half brown, where the brown adds caramel notes that lend to the drink a lovely-tasting combination.

Many state that using all brown sugar though would be too much like a distractingly heavy molasses flavor, losing the desired balance of flavors. Some people color their cream with some green food coloring for an added decorative element.

Some even add mint flavoring to the cream. What might you like to add and how to modify the process to your preferences?

Coffee Bean and Roast Level Factors

Coffee Beans for Irish Coffee

Now, one thing people may not give much thought to is the coffee roast level. Typically, a light or medium roast versus a darker roast is going to bring out more of the lighter, natural but deemphasized coffee bean flavor and let the whiskey flavor be more noticeable.

To bring out unusual flavor of sweet spices and fruit or other elements, a medium to darker roast is recommended. Because Irish whiskey is smooth and sweet, when you choose your whiskey if not Irish whiskey (although Irish Coffee should be made with Irish whiskey) something in the mid-range with a mild, sweet finish will properly counter the bitter coffee.

The coffee, Sumatra Silimakuta, roasted at a medium-dark roast was selected as a great coffee to use in Irish Coffee recipes by Stockton Graham & Co. for “its medium body, cocoa and soft hints of tangerine”.

Because this coffee is wet-hulled, a unique process that combines elements of both wet and dry processing, it has a distinctive flavor.”

A French roast, on the other hand, of say a dark-roasted blend of Central American coffees, offers smooth bodied and subtle flavor. And a dark roast will bring notable acidity to the flavor profile that tends to brighten at the end of the tasting.

Ready to Make your own Irish Coffee?

A Traditional Irish Coffee Recipe

  1. Fill up a glass with hot water to heat up the glass.  Pour out the water.
  2. Place two cocktail sugar cubes (one cube equals one teaspoon) at the bottom of the warmed-up glass. The original recipe called for two teaspoons of brown sugar. Some people use one teaspoon of brown sugar and one teaspoon of white sugar at the bottom of the warmed-up glass.
  3. Pour hot coffee (strong and rich) over the cubes (4 oz. typically), filling the glass to about three-quarters full.
  4. Stir the sugar until dissolved and mixed.
  5. Add Irish whiskey (80-proof, 1.5 oz. typically), leaving room for the dollop of cream on top. Do not stir.
  6. Pour a collar on top of a nice helping of heavy, cold cream — lightly whipped double cream, whipped to light peaks; about .75 – 1 oz.  You can gently smooth it over, if desired, with the convex side of a spoon.
  7. Enjoy!

As a final thought, some people have ordered an Irish Coffee to be made with fancy and more expensive Irish whiskey, but most people seem to think that the traditional Jameson’s Irish whiskey is just the right blend of smooth, sweet, and spicy.  Enjoy!

“It is a simple sipper, so just sit back and enjoy.

‘Do shláinte’ (Gaelic Toast) to your health.”

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