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Irish Coffee: What Is It?

Published on:

January 20, 2021

The Irish coffee is a delightful cocktail made with a combination of hot coffee, Irish whiskey, and brown sugar, then topped with a thick layer of fresh cream. Once enjoyed strictly around the holiday season, Irish cream flavored beverages– everything from RTD cold brew to flavored liqueurs and creamers– are popping up as consumers continue to seek out comfort through indulgent, familiar flavor experiences.

Ahead of National Irish Coffee Day this January 25, discover the origins of the famous drink and how its signature flavor continues to change what the world is drinking.


There are several origin stories for the Irish coffee, but the most widely accepted version credits Joe Sheridan, head chef of the terminal building’s restaurant and coffee shop in Foynes Airport (or Shannon Airport, as it was known at the time).

According to the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum’s website, the story goes like this:

Late one night in the winter of 1943, a flight left Foynes for New York. After flying for several hours in bad weather, the captain decided to return to Foynes to wait for safer conditions.

A Morse code message was sent to the Foynes control tower to inform them of the return. Staff were called back in and the passengers were brought to the restaurant upon landing to be served food and drink while they waited.

When Joe 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 drink, asking if he used Brazilian coffee. Joe jokingly answered, “No, it’s Irish coffee!”

Apparently, the name stuck– and so did the recipe for the now famous drink. In the words of creator Joe Sheridan, a proper version is made with, “cream as rich as an Irish brogue, coffee as strong as a friendly hand, sugar as sweet as the tongue of a rogue, and whiskey as smooth as the wit of the land.”

Today, you can still enjoy an authentic Irish coffee at the museum’s Irish Coffee Lounge– but how did the drink– and it’s signature flavor– spread beyond Ireland to become an international phenomenon?

Irish Coffee Comes to America

While the drink did originate in Ireland, San Francisco’s Buena Vista bar is where Irish coffee first reportedly came to the US– that is, all thanks to San Francisco Chronicle travel writer, Stanton Delaplane.

In 1951, Stanton passed through the Foynes Airport, where the Irish coffee had already become a traditional welcoming drink for passengers. By the time the famous journalist returned home to San Francisco, he was determined to reproduce the Irish coffee; so, he enlisted his friend, Buena Vista bar owner Jack Koeppler, for help.

The pair went through several variations of the recipe before getting the flavors and layers just right (supposedly, the cream was the biggest challenge).

Today, The Buena Vista remains the largest single consumer of Irish whiskey in the US, going through nearly 19k liter-sized bottles each year.

Paul Nolan, one of two brothers who are bartenders at the Buena Vista and considered among the world’s leading experts on Irish coffee, described to SFGate the process of preparing the drink–how he carefully rinses the glasses with hot water, adds two cubes of sugar (it must be C&H cane sugar), pours the coffee (Peerless is preferred), then the whiskey, and finally floats the cream across the top.

In 2006, the bar swapped out the type of whiskey used in the drink–from its own private brand made by the Cooley distillery in County Louth, Ireland, to Dublin’s Tullamore Dew– but the rest of the recipe has remained unchanged since it was perfected on November 10, 1952.

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How Irish Coffee Is Changing What The World is Drinking

While you can order an Irish coffee almost anywhere today, the famous drink and its signature flavor have continued to fascinate consumers. Now the classic is seeing new action as brands bring it into the 21st century.

Because it is typically served warm, the drink is most popularly enjoyed in the winter months; however, it is becoming more commonplace as a comfort flavor across beverage categories, especially as the RTD coffee sector continues to trend toward premiumization– just take a look at Starbucks’ cold brew version or Baily’s alcoholic and non-alcoholic RTDs.

“The blend of an aged whiskey harmoniously combines with coffee as they contain similar and complimentary components, chemically speaking,” says Flavorman’s Flavor Quality expert, Walter Willingham. The cream and sugar tie the package together by smoothing out some of the harsher qualities of the whiskey and coffee combination; namely, the bitterness and burn. The result is the ultimate indulgence– sweet, rich, and creamy.”

While commercial products like non-alcoholic coffee, powdered drink mixes, and confections can’t necessarily utilize the same ingredients as a homemade Irish coffee (real cream, Irish whiskey, etc.), beverage developers can create the same profile using flavor technology.

“At the heart of each and every ingredient is aroma chemicals,” says Flavorman’s Director Flavor Architect, Tom Gibson. “Flavorists can manipulate these chemicals to replicate the flavor that people expect from a traditional Irish coffee, which is how we’re able to create Irish coffee flavored ice cream, taffy, syrups– you name it.”

As trends continue to favor the comfort of the classics in new and exciting applications, expect to see fresh takes of the Irish coffee making a return. Yours can be next.

Have a great drink idea? The beverage experts at Flavorman can help you bring it to life! Get started by filling out this form or giving us a call at (502) 273-5214.

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