Handle The Proof: Irish Coffee

We can thank flying boats and airline personnel for Irish coffee.
We can thank flying boats and airline personnel for Irish coffee.

The origin of most cocktails has been clouded by time. There are several claims to the first margarita, for instance, or the first martini. But there's no disputing the who, when and where of the world's first Irish coffee.

Chef Joe Sheridan at the seaplane terminal in Foynes, Ireland, created it in 1942...although some will tell you it was the inspiration of the terminal's bartender. Other sources say one, the other--or both--poured the first one in "the 40s." And one even peels the date back to 1934, years before trans-Atlantic travel began through the town. Which is probably why yet another story waffles on the date, placing it in the "30s and 40s."

Well, at least the agree that some travel writer introduced the drink to Americans--and therefore, presumably, the world--by teaching it to staff members at San Francisco's Buena Vista Cafe in the 50s. Except, of course, for those who claim chef Sheridan himself brought spiked coffee to California and for the one joint in Los Angeles that credits itself.

This is why I generally avoid wading through origin myths...although if you can pore over such tales on a dreary day with a cup of Irish coffee by your side...

The steaming cocktail is perfect for days like this one. It is warmed by strong coffee and a stiff belt of Irish whiskey. But it is also smooth, creamy and just a bit sweet. The oldest recipes call for black coffee (obviously), Irish whiskey, sugar and heavy cream. Some versions call for as much as a one and a half heaping teaspoons of sugar.

Most restaurants thankfully reduced that amount--though they often mess things up by topping the cup with whipped cream rather than floating a layer of heavy cream over the spiked coffee.

In the version brought to San Francisco or Los Angeles by a chef, travel writer or someone else, the alcohol, sugar and coffee are stirred together. In some parts of Europe, however, they prefer to pour in stages--whiskey, then coffee, followed by cream. I've even had it as sugar, coffee, whiskey, cream, giving you an instant belt.

Despite the contention by some that Irish coffee ruins three really good drinks, it improves coffee and cream--though it does tend to harm the whiskey.

Still, on a day like today...

Oh--if you're wondering why the hell tourists were taking commercial flights to war torn Europe, keep in mind the Irish stayed out of the fight against Hitler. Yet they also provided a way for performers (on their way to entertain the troops), emissaries and--once--Eleanor Roosevelt to cross the Atlantic in relative safety.


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