Irish Coffee

by Thomas Stiegler

Irish Coffee (or Caife Gaelach, as it is called in its homeland) is Ireland’s most important contribution to international coffee house culture.

Yet, in comparison to most ways to prepare coffee, this method is relatively young, only having been invented in the 20th century.

Back then the world was still a little smaller and I think it also spun a little slower than it does today. In any case, it was not yet common practise to travel to faraway countries for a short holiday or to jet around the world just like that. The distances alone were too great for that.

But nevertheless, during that time a tightly woven web of flight connections began to form, which today, as though it was created by a greedy spider, spans across the whole globe.

One of the first connections was that between the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World’ , the mastering of which was an experience in itself.

One had to sit in the narrow, draughty cabin of a seaplane for eighteen hours to then still have to be rowed ashore by boat.

In order to shorten the travel time between the continents a little, the airport Foynes (the predecessor of today’s Shannon International Airport) was established on the stormy west coast of Ireland.

Altes Haus in Irland, ©wagrati_photo

On a stormy winter’s day in 1942, the time had come once again: a group of daring passengers renounced the comfort and safety of an ocean liner and set off for America aboard an aircraft.

But after hours of fighting the weather, the pilot realized that it made no sense to continue, so he steered the plane back to Foynes.

During the short journey between the plane and the terminal, the passengers became windswept and soaked aboard the small and uncomfortable boat and their only wish was a nice and dry place to warm up.

Luckily for them young chef Joe Sheridan was in the house that night and he wanted to treat the soaking wet guests to an Irish specialty as compensation for all the excitement.

He remembered the days of his childhood when the men of his village, half frozen after working on the fishing boats, would spike their tea with a strong shot of whiskey to awaken their spirits.

However, aware of the preferences of his American guests, he made a strong coffee instead, added plenty of sugar and finally poured a good shot of whiskey into the glass.

Then he crowned the whole thing with a cap of whipped cream and served it to his guests.

After initial scepticism, they were very impressed and wondered what the drink was all about. Finally, one of them took heart, approached the young chef and asked, »Is this Brazilian coffee?«

To which Joe Sheridan replied, »No, this is Irish coffee.«

And so, the Caife Gaelach was born.

The drink would not become internationally known until a decade later.

It was the well-known travel writer Stanton Delaplane who stopped over at the present Shannon Airport in 1952 and ordered an Irish Coffee, curious about the unfamiliar name.

Immediately after landing in San Francisco, he excitedly phoned his friend Jack Koeppler, the owner of the Café Buena Vista, and together they attempted to remake the drink.

But their attempts were in vain.

No matter what they tried, Delaplane shook his head in frustration and admitted: »No, that’s not an Irish Coffee.«

Irish Coffee, ©grafmex

So Jack Koeppler finally set out to ask Joe Sheridan for the original recipe. Which he promptly gave him!

Thus the »Café Buena Vista« was considered the place of origin of Irish Coffee for a long time, until Koeppler himself cleared up this mistake, leaving us with the true story as we know it today.

The original recipe for Irish Coffee is as follows:

Two teaspoons of sugar are caramelised over an open flame in a special, heat-resistant Irish Coffee glass, then 3-4 cl Irish Whiskey are added and the mixture is heated again.

Pour fresh coffee (as strong as possible) and then pour half-whipped cream over a spoon so that it flows slowly into the cup and does not mix with the coffee.

Irish Coffee, ©bhofack2

A somewhat simpler variation (and today’s standard recipe, as it is also used in Buena Vista) is the following:

First you warm a glass of hot water, empty it and fill it three-quarters full with freshly brewed coffee.

Then you add two cubes of sugar, a good shot of Irish whiskey and a layer of half-whipped cream to the coffee.

It is important that you drink the Irish Coffee (without stirring!) through the cream.

Supposedly it also makes a difference if you use white or brown sugar.

I don’t know if this is true, but Irish coffee lovers claim that brown sugar gives the drink a stronger, more intensive taste.

Nowadays most people agree that the choice of whiskey makes the biggest difference. Tullamore Dew is still the standard to this day (also used at Buena Vista) due to its mild, gentle flavour being believed to balance out the coffee.

The perfect drink to warm the soul and awaken the spirits, not just on a cold day in Ireland.


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