Throwback Thursday: Irish Coffee

Throwback Thursday: Irish Coffee
Irish Coffee and a fire on a cold early winter’s night. That’s magic in a hot glass. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Invented in an Irish west coast boat terminal on a freezing night in 1943, the Irish Coffee went on to become a world favourite.

Coffee, whiskey (with an “e”, note), sugar and cream. It’s as simple as that. But the whiskey must be Irish, the coffee strong and freshly brewed, and the balance of sweetness and the underlying bitter bite of the coffee just right. Finally, the layer of cream on top must be expertly and slowly poured over so that it does not blend into the coffee.

(Image by xql051016 from Pixabay)

In the Eighties, I owned an Irish coffee warmer not unlike the one in the stock photo here. You lit a flame below and propped the glass in a contraption above it at an angle. With the whiskey and sugar in the bottom of the glass, the flame would create a bit of magic and mystery, whereupon you would remove the glass, pour in hot, strong coffee until about 2.5 cm from the lip, then pour whipped cream over the back of a spoon, right to the brim. If you did all this quickly enough, your Irish Coffee would be served piping hot, as it should be. But a contraption such as that would probably have been laughable to its Irish inventor, back during the World War II years.

It’s generally referred to as a “hot cocktail” so it sits in an unusual space in that realm of cold or room temperature drinks so typical of the 20th century. Its invention was one of those strokes of happenstance: a Pan Am boat plane – one of the mechanical marvels of its era – had turned back to the boat plane terminal at Foynes in County Limerick (then one of Europe’s largest air terminals, out of which many people flew to the US) in atrocious weather, and barman Jo Sheridan was called back to the bar from his bed to look after the passengers. They were shivering with cold so he made coffee and poured whiskey in it to warm them, and topped it with cream for a bit of extra comfort. “Is this Brazilian coffee?” one passenger is said to have asked. “No, that’s Irish coffee,” our Jo is said to have replied firmly, launching a cocktail legend.

Its story is also associated with a bar in San Francisco, however, because a travel writer, amusingly named Stanton Delaplane, happened to be on the boat plane and consequently back at the terminal, and on ultimately reaching his US home decided to introduce it to his mate Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista bar, where the staff tried to perfect Delaplane’s guesstimate of exactly how it was made, then gave up and wrote to Jo Sheridan offering him a job. He worked there for a decade. The Buena Vista opened in 1916 and is still operating.

So, let’s make Jo’s lovely accidental invention. The Irish Whiskey Museum (it’s in Dublin’s Grafton Street, right opposite the entrance to Trinity College) advises that there should be a metal spoon in the glass when pouring a little boiling water into it to warm it up. Running it under a very hot tap for long enough should be enough to get it to a nice toasty temperature though. The glass, of course, needs to be a sturdy one. Here’s how…


1 measure of Irish whiskey (yes, it’s tempting to add more or even a double but the flavour balance will be wrong)

Enough strong, hot coffee to fill the glass to 2.5 cm or so before the brim

1 tsp sugar, more if you like

Cream, whipped, enough to fill the glass to the brim


Whisk your cream first. The consistency should be thick but pourable; don’t get carried away. We’re not talking soft peaks here.

Use the museum’s recommended method of heating the glass with boiling water if you’re brave. Or run it under super hot water for long enough to heat the glass.

Pour the whiskey into the hot glass.

Stir in the sugar, very well.

Pour in the coffee up till 2.5 cm or so from the brim. (Keep stirring to give the sugar more chance to dissolve fully.)

Pour cream over the back of a dessert spoon until the glass is full. If your technique is right, you’ll stop just short of it overflowing.

You can garnish it if you like but I doubt that Jo Sheridan did that. DM/TGIFood 

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected] 

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