Skip to content
Awakening To Irish Coffee

Awakening To Irish Coffee

The Buena Vista Cafe Irish Coffee

The Irish Coffee seems like the kind of drink that simply exists by default, never having been invented by anyone. It combines what may be the human race’s two greatest needs:  the need for a sobering jolt of energy to keep one’s eyes open through the day, and the need for a shot of lovely, happy liquid depressant to recover from said jolt of energy. It seems an obvious combination. And though there are some records of folks brewing up this combination in their homes, it was first formally invented and served at Ireland’s Foynes Airport Restaurant one evening in 1943 to weary wartime transatlantic passengers who were forced to wait the night out at the airport due to a long delayed flight to North America. It seemed to assuage their fatigue quite effectively, as word spread of this beautiful thing, this “Irish Coffee." It continued to be served at Foynes Airport, and after Foynes closed and the nearby Shannon Airport took its place, the drink was elevated to its position as Ireland’s most famous cocktail.

In 1952, that same Irish Coffee was first served in the United States at San Francisco’s own Buena Vista Cafe, an institution if ever there was one. There, at the terminus of the Powell/Hyde cable car line, gentleman bartenders in white jackets expertly made the hot, boozy liquid relief twenty at a time for locals and tourists alike, much the same as they do to this day. Luckily for us, it remains the same in quality, in presentation, and in ingredients: Coffee, sugar, heavy cream, and Irish Whiskey (Tullamore Dew, please!) served with pride. In fact, some years past, Joe Sheridan who first served this concoction, left his homeland and came to San Francisco to work with Buena Vista to keep the legacy thriving. Too often, when a historic bar is known for one drink, that drink stales through complacency fueled by guaranteed demand. Buena Vista Cafe has managed to avoid this, and although the vibe is certainly old fashioned, it never seems tired (maybe the coffee helps).

The Buena Vista Irish Coffee

1 ½ oz Irish Whiskey (Tullamore Dew)

4 oz Hot Coffee

2 teaspoons Sugar

Lightly Whipped Heavy Cream, to top

Add sugar to an Irish Coffee glass (or wine glass), pour in coffee, and stir to dissolve sugar. Add Irish Whiskey and stir again. Ladle the whipped cream on top of the drink, covering the whole surface area.

It should be noted that the Buena Vista cafe ages the cream for a few days first, which helps it float beautifully on top of the drink. This of course isn’t always possible, but certainly adds that expert touch to the drink.

A Different Take and a Century-old Institution

There’s a sign above the bar in Tosca Cafe in North Beach in San Francisco that reads “Whatever You Are, Be A Good One.” This philosophy has served this old establishment well with their take on Irish Coffee-like cocktails. True to the slogan, the two hot, creamy drinks (The House “Cappuccino” and The White Nun) are decidedly not Irish coffees (they contain exactly zero amount of Irish whiskey and no brewed coffee) but they are fantastic riffs on the coffee shop cocktail. It might be a disservice to label The House “Cappuccino” an Irish coffee riff as Tosca has been serving it since 1919, a good 33 years before the Irish cocktail jumped the Atlantic.  Furthermore, Tosca is a firmly Italian establishment and the drink is much more of a brandy based hot chocolate than coffee. Though the recipe was updated in 2013, the soul of the drink is still that of a hot chocolate, and so we’re going to talk about the other, newer drink that is much more of an Irish Coffee rival, The White Nun.

Served in a familiar Irish coffee glass, the drink is creamier and lighter in color. The coffee flavor (coming from two sources, a coffee liqueur and coffee syrup) is light but prevalent, perfectly complimenting the richness of the Armagnac which forms the other half of the base. This drink feels much more luxurious then the Irish Coffee - this is not say that it is better, but quite different: a cocktail aimed at brandy lovers who want something indulgent and rich with the Italian coffeeshop atmosphere. Only way to know which one you like more is to mix one up and see how it compares. 

Tosca’s The White Nun

1 oz. Heavy Cream

34 oz. Whole Milk

1 tsp. Yes Cocktail Co. Cold Brew Coffee Syrup

1 oz. St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur 

1 oz. Chateau De Pellehaut Armagnac

Bring ¾ oz. heavy cream, whole milk, and coffee syrup to a simmer in a 1-qt. saucepan. Remove from heat and add coffee liqueur and Armagnac. Pour into an Irish Coffee glass or mug. Add ¼ oz. cream to pan and whisk over medium until frothy. Pour over drink and serve!

NOTE: This recipe uses a tad more Armagnac than Tosca does. We just really love what the flavor does, and decided to up it by a 1/4 oz.

Shaken and Caffeinated: A Quicker, Chilled Take

 Hot coffee sippers are fantastic, but sometimes you need something chilled and faster to make - for this occasion (a common one for us), Patrick Smith has put together a recipe that bridges the difference between The Irish Coffee and The White Nun. This cocktail pays homage to the traditional Irish Coffee by using Irish whiskey as it’s base, but embraces the innovation of The White Nun by using a coffee liqueur for its main flavor. The orgeat gives gives the drink a little bit of creamier feel and a tad more sweetness to ground it in a true nutty coffee experience. 


B+B Irish Coffee Cocktail

1 1/2 oz 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey 

1 oz New Deal Coffee Liqueur

1 Barspoon Small Hand Foods Orgeat Syrup

1 Egg White (or 1 oz liquid egg white)

Combine all ingredients in mixing tin and dry shake without ice to froth egg white. Add ice and shake well. Double strain into chilled cocktail glass.

Pick up the whole kit here - for a great gift, to yourself or a loved one!




Previous article A Gin Cocktail Odyssey, Act II: You Only Live Twice

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields