Every bar has coffee, whiskey, and cream—and combining them with a touch of brown sugar results in a mighty fine cocktail. The classic Irish coffee was invented in the 1940s on a cold winter’s night in Ireland’s Shannon Airport and brought to the U.S. by Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who worked with San Francisco’s Buena Vista Cafe to popularize the drink in the 1950s.
Now, 60-ish years later, the quintessential winter warmer is going through another evolution, thanks to innovative bartenders who are infusing whiskey with ground espresso, whipping a stout reduction into fresh cream, and even heating a sous-vide bath to 75.2 degrees to keep the coffee/sugar mixture at the perfect temperature. Each of these 6 recipes injects a new, precise twist into the ingredients or presentation, but without changing the fundamentals that have made it a classic. As Sam Treadway, bartender at Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts, puts it, the drink sticks around not only because it’s delicious but because it satisfies the “upper and downer effect we all need sometimes.”
“Plus,” he adds, “it’s a way classier choice than a vodka–Red Bull.”
The Blind Abbot: Coffee can be the fussiest ingredient in an Irish coffee. To avoid flavor degradation, dilution, or browning of coffee on a hot plate, Pamela Wiznitzer, who contributed to the cocktail list at Grace, a pub in New York City, uses cold-brew coffee—amped up with Galliano Ristretto, an espresso-based liqueur.
Benicea Boy Irish Coffee: “You don’t need to muck around with beans from the Himalayas,” says Belfast native Jack McGarry, owner-bartender of the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York City. Yet there are a few common coffee mistakes that McGarry avoids when assembling his Irish coffee. “Espresso or Americano coffee overpowers the smooth and mellow Irish whiskey,” McGarry says, so he opts for filter coffee instead. And rather than leaving the coffee on the back bar for hours—i.e., ruining it—McGarry uses a sous-vide water bath to regulate the temperature of the coffee-sugar mixture. For whiskey, McGarry chooses a blend like Tullamore Dew or Jameson Original. “The grain content in the blend adds sweetness and kind of binds all the ingredients,” he adds. McGarry pre-whips cream by hand and stores it in a pourable container in the fridge. With all three ingredients ready to go, his bar staff can knock out the Irish coffee orders at a dangerously efficient pace.
Pour Over Irish Coffee: At Backbar in Boston, bartender Joe Cammarata wanted to create a memorable experience, so his Irish coffee is fairly theatrical. In front of the customer, he places a pour-over-coffee setup atop a preheated glass. “We add whiskey and boiling water into the pour-over and let it strain,” he says. “Then we whip up heavy cream in a shaker tin and dollop it on top.” He finishes the drink with a few drops of Bittermans Xocolat Mole bitters.
Vintage Coffee Cocktail: Gareth Lambe, general manager of Vintage Cocktail Club in Dublin, Ireland, gives his coffee-whiskey cocktail another Irish twist: He reduces Guinness with malt extract and vanilla bean, then whips it into the cream, which gives it a “slightly malty taste with a back note of vanilla and stout.” This cream is floated on top of the coffee-whiskey mixture, providing a slightly sweet note that, he says, “marries perfectly with the bitterness of the coffee we use.”
Irish Iced Coffee: At Restaurant Orsay in Jacksonville, Florida, bartenders infuse Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey with ground espresso—“to add depth of flavor and an extra jolt,” says bar manager Alex Smith. He then combines the infusion with 24-hour cold-brew coffee (from a Japanese system) and a touch of demerara syrup. He shakes it, and serves it over ice in a Collins glass; cream is then floated tableside.
Gort’s Reprieve Irish Coffee: Drink.well. in Austin, sees the coffee as the chance for a bit of theater. “We brew a fresh French press every time someone orders the drink,” says bartender Jessica Sanders. “A French press yields a coffee with a bit more viscosity and bolder flavors, compared to a traditional drip brewer.” The house coffee is from Casa Brasil, a local roaster focused exclusively on Brazilian beans. “Brazilian coffees,” says Sanders, “have the perfect level of acidity—lots of lime zest and a great astringency that balances out what can be a heavy drink with the whipped cream.” But, she says, simply using Irish whiskey is a solid foundation. “So long as you are using an actual Irish whiskey and not reaching for Bailey’s or another ‘Irish cream,’ you’re off to a good start.”
GORT’S REPRIEVE IRISH COFFEE
4 ounces hot freshly brewed coffee
1 1/2 ounces Redbreast Irish Whiskey
3/4 ounce amaro (such as Luxardo Amaro Abano)
1 teaspoon simple syrup
4 dashes Bittermens New Orleans Coffee Bitters (optional)
Whipped cream, ground nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice (for serving)
1 fresh mint leaf 2 coffee beans
Stir coffee, whiskey, liqueur, simple syrup, and bitters in a glass to combine. Top with whipped cream, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice and garnish with mint leaf and coffee beans.