The anatomy of an Irish Coffee

The coffee cocktail has reached dizzy heights in the last decade, now a mainstay on menus at some of the best bars in the world. Tyler Zielinski asks the experts to examine the component parts that make up an elevated Irish Coffee

Words by Tyler Zielinski

irish coffee at dead rabbit
The Irish Coffee at Dead Rabbit in New York, where the reverence for the cocktail has helped take the drink to new heights

The Irish Coffee is the perfect cocktail called for by nights drawing in and colder days. The idea of an ‘Irish Coffee’ typically conjures visions of a murky concoction of whiskey, coffee and Baileys Irish cream. And until about a decade ago, it was the bastardised version you’d receive at most bars around the world. However, thanks to the contemporary cocktail renaissance, bartenders have since reclaimed the Irish Coffee proper – an artful balance of lightly whipped cream layered atop a blend of dark-roasted coffee, Irish whiskey, and demerara sugar – giving new life to Ireland’s most iconic tipple.

homeboy bar owners
Aaron Wall and Ciarán Smith, owners of London's Homeboy Bars and Irish Coffee aficionados

‘For us [from Ireland], an Irish coffee is the perfect physical representation of the emotional warmth we wish to show our guests,’ Aaron Wall, co-owner of Homeboy Bars, says. ‘It’s like giving someone a hug, except it’s the drink that’s doing the hugging.’ Wall’s sentiment is similar to that of Joe Sheridan, the bartender responsible for popularising the Irish Coffee back in the winter of 1943 at the Foynes terminal building in County Limerick.

As the story goes, a flight departed from Ireland for New York, but was forced to turn back due to poor weather. As the passengers settled back in the terminal, Sheridan served something to calm their nerves, a riff on the ‘whisky coffee’ cocktail he’d first learned to make at the Dolphin Hotel in Dublin. (Although, this narrative is challenged by Wall who enjoys the version of the story where Sheridan supposedly made Irish Coffee for the pilots, not the passengers, with the layer of whipped cream used to mask the smell of alcohol.)

After Sheridan’s famous service in 1943, the Irish Coffee blossomed. It attracted attention from imbibers all over the world, including American travel writer Stanton Delaplane (the man also credited for putting the Dukes Bar Martini on the map), who was tasked with recreating the Irish Coffee for the Buena Vista Club in San Francisco. The winter cocktail went on to make its debut at the bar in 1952 and is still a mainstay on the menu – with Buena Vista serving upwards of 2,000 Irish Coffees a day. Fast forward to today, and the Irish Coffee is featured on the menus at some of the world’s best cocktail bars, from Dead Rabbit in New York to Swift and Homeboy in London — all of which have perfected the drink in their own way.

Despite the rise of modern interpretations, the Irish Coffee isn’t a cocktail to be overly tinkered with

‘From my perspective, an Irish Coffee loses its core identity when a spirit other than Irish whiskey is used, or other modifiers outside coffee, sugar and cream are added to the drink,’ points out Jillian Vose, Beverage Director at Dead Rabbit, and co-author of Mixology & Mayhem, Paddy Drinks and When Whiskey Met Its Match. While some bartenders believe there is a little bit more room for creativity, Vose’s message is clear: despite the rise of modern interpretations, the Irish Coffee isn’t a cocktail to be overly tinkered with.

swift irish coffee
The Irish Coffee at Swift in London, which is made with Jameson Caskmates, double cream and demerara-sweetened coffee

With that in mind, we spoke to experts at some of the bars where the drink is having a revival to help understand the key components that form a part of the Irish Coffee’s unmistakable identity.

The Whiskey

‘As long as it’s Irish [whiskey], I encourage people to have a bit of fun with it’, says Wall. ‘The most important thing is that you want something that isn’t overpowering, but also doesn’t disappear when mixed with big ingredients such as coffee, sugar, and cream. I think familiar brands such as Jameson and Tullamore Dew have this roundness to them, a characteristic that means they don’t get lost in the drink.’

At Homeboy, a contender for the best Irish coffee in London, the bar’s house version of the tipple calls for Jameson Black Barrel – a whiskey that’s aged in an ex-bourbon cask that’s re-charred by coopers, yielding a heartier spirit that stands up to the coffee and sugar. The bar also features a pot still Irish Coffee on the menu, which employs the round and elegant Redbreast 12 Year. While it’s unorthodox to use a single pot still Irish whiskey, typically reserved for sipping, Homeboy prioritises flavour over tradition — and London is all the better for it.

Jameson Black Barrel is the whiskey of choice for Homeboy's standard Irish Coffee

At New York’s Dead Rabbit, they’ve developed their own Irish whiskey blend after trying many different styles. ‘We use a blend of Bushmill’s Original, which is 40% ABV and is a mix of grain and malt whiskies; Jameson (grain and pot still); Tullamore DEW (grain, malt, and pot still); Teeling small batch (grain and malt); and Dead Rabbit’s own Irish whiskey (grain and malt),’ Vose explains.

The only other variable to consider is an ABV that helps the whiskey cut through other dominant flavours. As long as your whiskey, or blend, is around the 43 to 45 per cent mark, you’re golden.

The Coffee and Sugar

Because the Irish Coffee is such a simple formula, there is little room for error – and that’s especially true when balancing the coffee and sugar.

In a nutshell, the coffee must be robust and hot, and the sugar should be demerara (or another dark sugar, such as muscovado). Adding the sugar to the coffee can be done in one of two ways: either as a syrup (two parts sugar to one part water) at a volume ranging between 15ml and 20ml per serve, or in granulated form (four parts coffee to one part sugar). Each bar has a slightly different method when it comes to balancing these two components, the result of lots of research and development.

‘We literally tested dozens of coffees before we found our blend,’ says Bobby Hiddleston, co-owner of Swift Bars. ‘The vast majority of ground coffee is Arabica, but we found that a Robusta-heavy blend gives a punchiness that holds up to the assault of whiskey and sugar. On its own, this type of coffee can be quite ashy and bitter, but it retains its presence in an Irish Coffee.’

filter coffee
Aaron Wall: 'The dark chocolate notes of an over-roasted coffee pairs exceptionally well with the woodiness of whiskey'

Aaron Wall from Homeboy also agrees with Hiddleston’s sentiment about using a bolder-flavoured coffee, noting that actually, the dark chocolate notes of an over-roasted coffee pairs exceptionally well with the woodiness of the whiskey. (For brewing coffee at home, Wall recommends buying a gadget called the Moccamaster.)

Even the temperature counts. ‘The serving temperature is the element that is most often forgotten when it comes to an Irish Coffee,’ Hiddleston says. ‘Ideally, the Irish Coffee should be served between 68 and 70 degrees Celsius. At Swift Bars, we keep our sweetened coffee in a sous vide bath set at 75 degrees — any higher and the coffee can burn. We pour that mixture into a heated Irish Coffee glass, and the room temperature whiskey brings the hot sweetened coffee down to our ideal serving temperature.’

The Cream

Everyone’s favourite component of an Irish Coffee also happens to be the fussiest. The cream needs to be fresh, unsweetened, and perfectly whipped to ensure that it floats atop the hot, sweetened coffee and whiskey.

‘I think drinking an Irish Coffee should be like drinking a pint of Guinness,’ says Wall. ‘You should be able to drink through the cream head and get a sip of the hot cocktail underneath.’ At Homeboy, the bar uses a squeeze bottle with a small nozzle that you’d typically find in a chef’s kitchen – the logic being that if the cream is too thick to come out of the nozzle, then it’s too thick to go on the Irish Coffee.

irish coffee at dead rabbit
The fresh cream used in Dead Rabbit's Irish Coffee is whipped in a large protein shaker

At Dead Rabbit, bartenders use a fresh local cream that’s whipped in a large protein shaker, which makes it faster, cleaner, and easier to store in the fridge. They simply fill the shaker a bit over half way, and make sure the spring ball is inside before shaking for a few minutes. ‘If there are no more bubbles that you can see and the cream is still pourable, then it should be ready,’ says Vose. ‘If you can still see bubbles and it’s very thin, you’ll need to shake longer.’

Mastering the consistency of the cream will take some time, but as long as it’s whipped it’ll be delicious.

The Glass

In terms of ensuring the structure of the Irish Coffee is perfectly sound – meaning each sip contains a sensational contrast of cool cream and hot base mixture from beginning to end – there is only one type of drinking vessel, and that’s a Georgian Irish Coffee glass.

georgian glass irish coffee
The Georgian Irish Coffee glass is a glassware mainstay for the cocktail at Homeboy (above) and other high-end bars

‘The size and shape of the glass is very important as it dictates how much coffee to use, which is important for the balance of the cocktail,’ says Vose. ‘At Dead Rabbit, our recipe fits perfectly in a 6oz (180ml) glass.’ Additionally, larger glasses mean that it takes longer to drink the Irish Coffee, which also affects the quality of the temperature. If you don’t drink it quickly, you’ll be stuck with a lukewarm mixture halfway through.

Just be sure to heat your glass with scalding water before building the cocktail. ‘It’s much easier to serve the drink at the correct temperature if you do,’ Hiddleston says.

The Irish Coffee is simple to make, but difficult to make perfectly. The devil is truly in the detail.