They might not grow any coffee in Ireland, but we still have that island to thank for one of the world’s most perfect coffee drinks: Irish coffee.
What makes it perfect? There’s nothing it can’t do: It’ll perk you up, calm you down, warm you to your bones, and give you something complex yet comfortable to sink in to, flavor-wise. A good Irish coffee can be a fantastic end-cap to a meal or a relaxing drink to sip while swapping tall tales with good friends. In this post, we’ll talk about what makes a true Irish coffee, share a bit of its history, and offer a recipe for making both a hot and iced version.
What is Irish Coffee
Irish coffee is typically a hot coffee drink made with strong brewed coffee, sugar, Irish whiskey, and gently whipped cream. Balancing the sweetness of the sugar with the fiery kick of the alcohol is key; rich, black coffee offers some supporting structure to the flavors, and cool, perfectly textured and pourable cream creates the drink’s iconic mouthfeel.
Irish whiskey is a significant ingredient, and it probably goes without saying that the best whiskey makes the best Irish coffee. (Your mileage may vary when it comes to “the best” here: As with any other flavor experience, you’ll want to find out what you prefer. Irish whiskey runs the gamut of flavor profiles, from peaty and smokey to fruity or floral, all along the spectrum of sweet and bitter.)
Single malt Irish whiskey is usually triple-distilled and made solely from unmalted barley. (American whiskey is often made from rye, wheat, or corn.) Pot still Irish whiskeys combine malted and unmalted barley with other cereal grains (e.g. wheat, corn). Irish grain or “single grain” whiskeys actually comprise a blend of cereal grains. Blended Irish whiskeys are the result of combining two different types of the above whiskeys, such as single malt and grain whiskey. While there’s no “perfect” whiskey type for Irish coffee, we do like to stay true to the spirits that the island has to offer.
Some variations of the drink include Irish cream liqueurs such as Baileys in place of or in addition to the whipped cream, but coffee lovers may prefer the more coffee-forward flavor that the original recipe calls for.
History of Irish Coffee
Yes, the Irish are known more for being tea drinkers than coffee drinkers, but that didn’t stop Joe Sheridan from creating this legendary drink at his restaurant in the Foynes Airbase in the 1940s. During World War II, Foynes became a significant civilian airport, as well as a major terminal for flying boats, or seaplanes. Passengers were often treated to western Ireland’s less-than-hospitable winter weather, and Chef Sheridan sought to offer travel-weary guests a bit of respite.
Realizing that many of his customers were American, and therefore probably coffee drinkers, he combined a favorite Irish drink with a favored American one, pouring a shot of Whiskey into strong, sweetened hot coffee topped with whipped cream. The story goes that one of his satisfied customers asked, “Is this Brazilian coffee?,” to which Sheridan replied, “It’s Irish coffee.”
After several years slinging the blarney beverage in Ireland, Sheridan moved to San Francisco to begin working at the Buena Vista Café, which is credited with popularizing Irish coffee within the United States.
How to Make Great Irish Coffee
Purists may insist that Irish coffee can only be served hot, but we think it can be a lovely drink served chilled on the rocks, as well.
Hot Irish Coffee
- 1 tsp packed brown sugar
- 8 oz strong hot coffee
- 1 ½ Irish whiskey
- Gently whipped heavy cream (don’t even think about the canned stuff)
In a mug or Irish coffee glass, dissolve the brown sugar in the hot coffee. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, gently stir in the whiskey with a spoon. Turn the spoon over so that the bottom of its bowl is facing upward and its tip is nearly touching the surface of the coffee, then gently pour the cream over the back of the spoon to fill the mug or glass. This helps the cream float on the top of the coffee, rather than sink in. Serve or drink immediately.
Iced Irish Coffee
- ½ oz brown sugar simple syrup
- 8 oz iced coffee, or cold brew diluted to taste (on the strong side)
- 1 ½ oz Irish whiskey
- Gently whipped heavy cream
In a small mixing bowl or separate glass, combine the coffee and simple syrup until well mixed. Add the whiskey, stir, and then pour the liquid into an ice-filled glass, leaving about ½ an inch of room at the top. Turn the spoon over so that the bottom of its bowl is facing upward and its tip is nearly touching the surface of the coffee, then gently pour the cream over the back of the spoon to fill the mug or glass. This helps the cream float on the top of the coffee, rather than sink in. Serve or drink immediately; it’s preferable to sip this directly from the glass rather than use a straw, in order to enjoy the balance of flavors.
Fresh whipped cream is the finishing touch and should be treated with the same respect as the whiskey and the coffee itself. When whipping the cream, remember not to make it too stiff in texture: You want it to be pourable into the glass.
You can also make Irish coffee using an Americano as your base: Simply dilute your espresso to a level that is still somewhat strong, so the flavor cuts through the sugar, alcohol, and cream. This also applies to making an iced American–based Irish coffee.
Choose your coffee wisely: You’ll want a somewhat strong-tasting coffee base, better suited to beans and roasts that tend toward nutty, chocolaty, or toasty flavors. A lighter, brighter Washed Ethiopian might disappear under the other flavors, for example.
A sprinkle of cinnamon or fresh nutmeg isn’t exactly traditional, but it sure is nice.