Rich as an Irish Brogue
Strong as a Friendly Hand
Sweet as the tongue of a Rogue
Smooth as the Wit of the Land.
No, this is not a poem by W.B. Yeats. Rather these are the ingredients for the Irish Coffee created by Joe Sheridan in winter 1942 at Foynes airbase near Limerick. In order, the ingredients are cream, coffee, sugar, and Irish Whiskey.
The history of Irish Coffee is rather dramatic, although not without some disagreement. According to legend, Joe Sheridan was the chef at the Foynes airbase restaurant when a flight ultimately destined for New York was forced to return because of bad weather. Joe wanted to prepare something special to warm up the intrepid but decidedly cold and hungry travelers, so he brewed dark, rich coffee, added some Irish Whiskey and a little brown sugar, and floated freshly whipped cream on top. When an American passenger queried whether it was Brazilian coffee, Joe replied, “No, that’s Irish Coffee.” And so a star was born. When Shannon Airport opened nearby, Joe took his drink and served it there. It was at Shannon Airport that a Pulitzer prize winning travel writer named Stanton Delaplane had the drink and later convinced the owner of the Buena Vista in San Francisco to recreate it. After many failed attempts, a trip by owner Jack Koeppler to Shannon Airport to confront the lion in its lair, and with the assistance of the mayor of San Francisco, a prominent dairy owner who helped get the cream to float, the Buena Vista’s version of Joe Sheridan’s Irish Coffee was introduced on November 10, 1952. And guess what: to ensure authenticity the Buena Vista hired Joe Sheridan, his own self, as a bartender that year.
I mention this as background for my recent visit to the Buena Vista—or BV as Sous Chef and the locals like to call it–for an early morning Irish Coffee. Sous Chef has been a Buena Vista devotee for decades and likes nothing better than to catch a cable car on the Powell—Hyde line, grab a handrail, and let the chill, damp air bring tears of joy as the cable car trundles along to its terminus at Fisherman’s Wharf across from the Buena Vista. Being somewhat of a good sport, although not the early riser that Sous Chef is, I accompany him on these morning sojourns and by the time we arrive at the end of the line, I am ready for anything hot and comforting.
The Buena Vista is as warm, comforting, and nostalgic as an old saloon, which it has been since the ground floor of a boardinghouse was converted to a saloon in 1916. Tables are crowded along the windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. But it is the bar that seemingly goes on forever that attracts one’s attention. It is a man’s bar, heavy and wooden with scars along its surface from fisherman banging their glasses for sustenance and, more recently, tourists dropping cell phones, cameras, and all manner of travel detritus on its surface. No food is served at this bar; you go to the tables for that. And there are always twenty or so of the establishment’s special Irish Whiskey glasses lined up along the bar’s edge like soldiers at attention.
The Buena Vista is the mecca for Irish Coffee. It serves some 2,000 glasses of the stuff per day (the record being 6,177 during Super Bowl 1982 won by the 49ers) and is the biggest consumer of Irish Whiskey in the world. But like a good Irish tale, there is always intrigue. It seems that the Buena Vista first used Jameson or Powers Irish Whiskey and at some point began using its own private brand made by the Cooley distillery in County Louth, Ireland. In 2006 an uproar ensued when the Buena Vista switched to Tullamore Dew, which is mass produced in Dublin. The debate has raged since then about which is better, with much consumption of the current concoction taking place in an effort to bring clarity to the subject. Change does not come easily or quickly at the Buena Vista, and that is one of its endearing qualities. For example, brothers Paul and Larry Nolan have been bartenders there forever it seems; in Larry’s case for over 40 years. These men are experts in their field, capable of making a dozen or more Irish Coffees at a time with a synchronicity that is truly amazing. Watching them is nearly as much fun as drinking their creation.
So whether you belly up to the bar at 9 am for an Irish Coffee to start your day, or at the end of a long day, do try Irish Coffee The Buena Vista Way!
- Hot Water
- Hot Coffee
- 2 Sugar Cubes
- Full Jigger of Irish Whiskey
- Lightly Whipped Whipping Cream
- Fill empty glass with very hot water to pre-heat, then empty.
- Pour hot coffee into the hot glass until it is about three-quarters full. Drop in two sugar cubes.
- Stir until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved.
- Add full jigger of Irish Whiskey for proper taste and body.
- Top with a collar of lightly whipped whipping cream by pouring gently over a spoon. Enjoy while piping hot.