Irish coffee: Delicious and just 4 ingredients!
Written by: Caitlin
Published: 25th October 2021, last updated: 11th August 2022
Irish coffee. The perfect winter warmer on a cold day or an indulgent cocktail to enjoy with friends. Drunk at the end of a three-course meal, or as a stand-alone treat. Versatile, delicious and comforting, and now with many variations too. So what makes Irish coffee so special and where did it come from? Read on to find out.
First, there was coffee…
The name “coffee” is derived from the Arabic word qahwa, which means drink. Coffee is now the second most traded commodity around the world, second only to petroleum. There are many legendary tales about early uses and discoveries of coffee, but which ones are true and which ones aren’t is not entirely clear.
You can read some fascinating facts about the history of coffee HERE.
What we do know is that it is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, and that coffee was used in the Middle East in the 16th century to aid concentration. Throughout history there have been many uses for coffee, including being a spiritual intoxicant and an erotic stimulant. It became popular among sailors who were often stranded at sea without access to alcohol in the 16th century.
In Europe, however, people didn’t take to coffee until much later. In 1650, the Dutch East India Company began importing Arabica beans into Europe for use in their own blends of coffee. By 1720, coffee had become popular throughout Europe.
Then there was Irish coffee…
Prior to 1943, despite a worldwide love of coffee and of whisky as separate beverages, nobody had had the genius idea of putting the two together in the form of an Irish coffee- or if they had they didn’t market it well!
Who invented Irish coffee?
The invention of Irish coffee is attributed to a chef named Joe Sheridan, who was originally from Castlederg, Country Tyrone. In 1943 he was working in a restaurant and coffee shop located in the terminal building of Foynes airport. The restaurant was owned by Brendan O’Regan and was widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in Ireland.
During the winter of 1943, a late night flight attempted to leave Foynes heading for New York. Due to horrendous weather conditions, and after several hours flying around, the captain decided to return to Foynes to wait for safer conditions before departing again. The staff were informed via a Morse code message that the plane was returning, and were called back into work in order to provide the weary and frustrated passengers with some food and drink.
When Chef Joe Sheridan was asked to prepare something to warm the weary passengers, he was inspired to put some good Irish whiskey in their coffee. One passenger approached the chef and thanked him for the wonderful coffee, asking if he used Brazilian coffee. Joe jokingly answered, “No, it was Irish coffee!”
A few weeks later, Chef Sheridan knocked on owner Brendan O’Regan’s office door. He showed O’Regan his new beverage in a stemmed glass and asked, “How about that for eye appeal?” O’Regan answered, “Genius, Chef!” And so was born Irish coffee!
Did you know?
In Irish the beverage is known as Caife Gaelach.
How to make Irish coffee?
The traditional Irish coffee recipe is as follows:
- 1 shot Irish Whiskey
- 2 shots freshly brewed strong black coffee
- 3-4 teaspoons light brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
To make the perfect Irish coffee there are a few bartenders tricks of the trade that you really should try.
- Firstly the glass should be warmed, most do this by filling it with some warm water and leaving it to stand for a moment or two. This is one of the most important things about how to make Irish coffee because it allows the beverage to hold its layers properly and doesn’t draw the heat out of the ingredients. The water is simply discarded when you are ready to create the drink.
- Lightly whip the cream, with no aeration it will be too thin and will mix in with the coffee, over whip it and you will end up with a dense dollop on top of your coffee which is not aesthetically pleasing. Set the cream aside until the end.
- Mix the whiskey, coffee and sugar in the prewired glass mug. Stir it in thoroughly so that the sugar properly dissolves. The sugar is important regardless of Tate as it ensures the coffee is strong enough to support the cream topping without the two mixing. Stronger coffee will also create a denser mixture too, which is helpful.
- Warm a spoon, then gently pour the cream over the back of it whilst holding it suspended slightly above the top of the coffee. Take your time and the cream should settle on the top of the drink, creating two beautiful layers of juxtaposing colours.
Many like to garnish their Irish coffee with a light dusting of nutmeg or cocoa powder on the top, but this is not necessary and is just a matter of personal taste.
Your Irish coffee should not be stirred again after the cream is floated on top, but instead the coffee should be drunk through the layer of cream.
Many people struggle with getting the look right, with the two separate layers rather than the cream and coffee mixing together, but it is really just a matter of physics. The cream must be less dense than the coffee, hence the important details to adhere to, such a light whipping and the addition of sugar, and voila! Your Irish coffee is complete.
The most common variation uses Bailey’s Irish Cream instead of Irish whisky. This can be made more authentic by using only half as much Bailey’s as whisky. It will add another layer of flavor without making it too heavy.
A less sweet alternative is to use the coffee flavoured liqueur Kahlua rather than Bailey’s. Some people even prefer their Irish Coffee without any alcohol added, although this can lead to bitterness when using low quality coffee beans.. Others add rum or brandy. There is no reason why you can’t experiment!
If you are making your own Irish Coffee, use freshly roasted whole bean coffee rather than instant coffee. This will give you more flavour and aroma.
The other option would be to swap out the Irish Whiskey for Scotch whisky. This variation has been around since at least 1820s, according to Wikipedia.
Many of these variations of hot coffee served with a distilled spirit, and with cream floating on top have been given names which are derived from Irish coffee.
Some of these liqueur coffee examples are: an Irish cream coffee which uses Irish cream like Baileys as a substitute for the whisky, a Jamaican coffee which would be made with rum, a Highland coffee, or Gaelic coffee, which would be made with Scotch whisky rather than Irish, or a Russian coffee with vodka.
If you have come across any other examples too we’d love to know about them!
Irish coffee mug
An Irish coffee is usually served in a specific kind of vessel. Unlike a standard coffee mug it is made of clear glass, allowing you to appreciate the aesthetics of the two separate layers in the drink. It features a short stem which raises the glass off of the bar, and some variations also have a handle, but some appear more like a stout wine glass. It is a mug that is more about appearance than practicality, but hey, it’s traditional!
You can treat yourself to your very own Irish coffee mug HERE.
Quick Facts about Irish coffee
- January 25th is National Irish coffee Day – so treat yourself, it would be rude not to partake!
- Alex Levin was famously quoted as saying, “Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat.”
- The first cafe to have Irish coffee in the U.S. was the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, California. They introduced it to their menu in 1952
- The same cafe holds the Guinness Record for largest Irish Coffee at a whopping 15 gallons!
- Rory McGee of the Shelbourne bar in Cork holds the world record for making Irish coffees, after he made 49 Irish coffees in three minutes in a competition in 2020.
- The village of Foynes in Ireland where the Irish coffee originated from holds an annual Irish Coffee Festival.
- Some people believe that an Irish coffee in moderation is actually good for your health. It can reduce your risk of heart disease and aid in unblocking your arteries because of the mix of alcohol and caffeine it contains!
- The Irish take so much pride in their coffee that in 1988, the National Standards Authority of Ireland published Irish Standard I.S. 417: Irish Coffee.
- Irish coffee is consumed worldwide on March 17th in celebration of St. Patricks Day
And if you are looking for a tasting nibble to accompany your Irish coffee, why not check out our round-up of authentic Irish recipes.