Irish Coffee Isn't Just for St. Patrick's Day—Learn How to Make This Perfect Whiskey Cocktail for Winter
When made correctly, sipping one after dinner is a truly memorable experience.
Some people think that Irish coffee has become a post-meal afterthought, but that's only true when they're imagining the combination of coffee and sugary Irish cream, flavored syrups, or a little whiskey poured into a basic cup of Joe. When it's made correctly, though, it's a truly memorable experience. What's more, it's easy to make at home, and when it's properly paired and balanced (and sipped through a float of freshly whipped cream), you'll find that the flavors of coffee and whiskey complement each other perfectly.
Like corned beef and cabbage, origins of the Irish coffee seem to be more Irish-American than Irish. The Buena Vista restaurant in San Francisco claims to have created the drink in 1952 after a travel writer described a drink to the bartender that he enjoyed at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Experiments continued until they figured out how to create the perfect whipped-cream float. The Buena Vista is said to serve 2,000 Irish coffees in a single day. To achieve the perfect whipped cream float, it's essential that the coffee is very hot: The Buena Vista warms their heatproof six-ounce glasses with hot water before adding the rest of the ingredients. TD Sidell, a Brooklyn-based bartender and mixologist formerly at Diner, stresses how important this step is, though it is often overlooked. He uses a ceramic mug to give the drink more of a sophisticated feel than the popular curvy glass mugs that add to its "old-timey ice cream shoppe feel."
The Buena Vista uses two standard sugar cubes for sweetness, but other bartenders and mixologists suggest using two teaspoons of Demerara sugar for its mild caramel flavor that complements the whisky, but doesn't overpower it. Sugar is a necessary component of Irish coffee, to get the cream to float at the top.
Coffee and Whiskey
When choosing which coffee and whiskey to use, know that your final selections really will make a difference. Coffee is a very strong flavor and can easily overpower the more subtle flavors of whisky—and sometimes flavor notes such as caramel, vanilla, and toasted nuts can be quite similar—so it's best to choose a brew that will highlight and complement the whiskey. It's also essential to use coffee that has been freshly brewed. Columbian coffees are a great place to start. Dark-roasted beans, like Counter Culture's Gradient ($12.99, target.com), a full-bodied brew with a vibrant acidity and a mildly sweet brown-sugar flavor, pairs extremely well with a well-balanced whiskey that has smokey and fruity notes. Matthew Kaner, co-founder of Bar Covell in Los Angeles, makes his Irish coffee with Knappogue Castle 12-year Single Malt (from $47.99, drizly.com) because it is mellow and well-balanced with bright elegant fruitiness. Other Irish whiskeys, like Tullamore D.E.W (from $27.99, drizly.com), Jameson (from $29.99, drizly.com), or Bushmill's (from $25.99, drizly.com) are widely available.
Kenyan coffee is a bit bolder and more complex, with assertive acidity and berry notes. They pair extremely well with whiskeys aged in sherry casks, such as Dublin Liberties Copper Alley ($64.99, totalwine.com), Redbreast 15 Year Old (from $47.99, drizly.com), or Slane Irish Whiskey (from $28.99, drizly.com). It might seem like overkill to use great coffee for this cocktail but Blue Bottle's Kenya Kirinyaga Kaguyu ($13.50, bluebottlecoffee.com) is an amazing single origin Kenyan coffee that really brings out the dark berry notes of these whiskeys.
A good ratio of coffee to whiskey is four ounces of coffee to an ounce and a half of whiskey. Sometimes bartenders will also add Bailey's, Kaluha, a flavored syrup, or even an amaro at this stage, but simplicity is really best for this drink.
The perfect cloud of whipped cream that floats on the top of an Irish Coffee must be whipped by hand—there's just no way around it. It is also unsweetened. Whip the cream until extremely soft peaks form; at this point, some bartenders will pour the cream over the back of a spoon to create a perfectly layered cocktail.
Follow these suggestions and see how truly delicious and elegant an after dinner (or anytime) drink Irish coffee can be.