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Irish Coffee

Irish Coffee
Irish Coffee

For many people, coffee is more than a drink -- it is a crucial component of daily life that is to be savored accordingly. This fervor is evidenced by the fact that rare beans from tucked-away corners of the world can fetch thousands of dollars on the open market. It is also evidenced by the ubiquitous coffee shops that use beans from all over the globe in new and unique concoctions. Ever since people first decided to grind this substance into a beverage they have been manipulating that beverage to create ever-more tasty gourmet coffee recipes. And this innovation doesn't show any signs of slowing, as entirely new flavored coffee recipes are being created on a near daily basis. But there's no need to constantly look ahead to what the popular new coffee drink recipe will be, as history provides us with one that has stood the test of time: Irish coffee.


Ireland is a country of drinkers, both of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. So it was only a matter of time before some intrepid mixologist thought to combine the two seemingly disparate worlds of coffee and whiskey and invent what today is known as Irish coffee. From its humble beginnings in an airport lounge, this uniquely regional beverage started as a traditional Irish drink that usually accompanied traditional Irish foods. However, it has since found its way to many corners of the world and is enjoyed by people of all nationalities today. Its popularity endures because a great Irish coffee does two things and two things only: celebrate fine whiskey, and celebrate fine coffee.

On paper, Irish coffee couldn't be more straightforward: combine whiskey, sugar, coffee and throw some cream on top. But this simplistic approach undermines what makes this drink popular the world over. Like the traditional Irish dishes that make up the world of Irish cuisine, there is a lot of nuance to the preparation of Irish coffee that is informed by culture and the history of the country.

The history of Irish coffee is important because it – even more than the type of Irish whiskey involved in the preparation – is what truly makes the drink "Irish." From its humble beginnings on the West Coast of Ireland to its global recognition as one of the finest after-meal cocktails to be had, Irish coffee is a small piece of culture offered in drink form to the world at large. So with that in mind, here is a brief history of the drink and how it came to be.

History of Irish Coffee

Foynes, Ireland
Foynes, Ireland

While the idea of mixing coffee and alcohol has been around for over a century, it wasn't until the 1940s that Irish coffee as it's known and prepared today was invented – in Foynes, of all places.

Foynes is a major port in County Limerick, Ireland. Its now-closed airbase was a precursor to Shannon International Airport and up until 1945 was the main European stop for commercial seaplanes traveling from America. Because various politicians and Hollywood celebrities were passing through this coastal Irish village, the local municipality thought it would be a good idea to have a restaurant in the airport. This restaurant would serve two purposes: cater to the VIPs, and present a positive image of Ireland and its citizens.

Joe Sheridan
Joe Sheridan

Joe Sheridan, a young Irish chef, was tasked to head the restaurant but his new position was hardly auspicious. To the uninitiated, the West Coast of Ireland is prone to extreme fits of weather and is often stormy and cold. Passengers arriving to Foynes were often tired, freezing and generally in a foul mood. One evening in 1942, a plane took off from Foynes bound for Nefoundland, but had to turn back due to a severe storm. The passengers on board were appropriately weary upon returning to the airbase, and Joe wanted to prepare something special for them to warm them up. Almost on a whim he came up with the idea of mixing dark coffee, Irish whiskey and brown sugar with a dollop of heavy cream floating on top. The travelers were immediately hooked, and when one American asked, "Is this Brazilian coffee?" Joe responded with: "That's Irish Coffee."

The Buena Vista
The Buena Vista

The seemingly simple yet perfectly innovative drink became something of a staple at the airport, being ordered by foreign travelers and locals alike. The airbase at Foynes closed in 1945 in order to make room for the international airport in nearby Shannon, just across the waterway. Joe packed up and took his services -- as well as his unique coffee drink -- to the new airport. But while Irish coffee was making a local splash, it wasn't in any danger of becoming an international sensation – that is, until Stanton Delaplane got wind of it.

Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista
Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista

Stanton Delaplane was a popular American travel writer who developed a passion for Irish coffee after sampling a few in Shannon. The cocktail made such an impact on Delaplane that he took the recipe all the way back to San Francisco, to the Buena Vista Hotel. Delaplane and a bartender at the hotel named Jack Koeppler tried to perfect this imported recipe to no avail. Their problem was they simply couldn't get the cream to float on the top of the cocktail. Undeterred, Koeppler took matters into his own hands and traveled to Shannon in order to clearly decipher the recipe. He found out that in order to get the cream to adequately float on top of the liquid required two things: that the cream be aged for 48 hours and that it be frothed to just the right consistency.

With the proper methodology now mastered, Koeppler was ready to serve perfect Irish coffees to Americans. With Delaplane hyping Irish coffees every chance he could in his widely read travel column, it wasn't long before the drink took off stateside. And as a testament to just how seriously the Buena Vista took its Irish Coffee, they brought Joe Sheridan all the way from Ireland to work at the hotel.

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