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How the hot toddy took flight (Irish Coffee)

Irish Coffee is known and loved across the world, but how did this happen? Peter Mulryan shows how it first took off
By Peter Mulryan
For a brief period during the 1940s there flowered the most glamorous form of transport that we are ever likely to see.In the days before budget airlines, or even decent runways, flying boats, the huge dinosaurs of the aviation world, criss-crossed the Atlantic, pushing man and machine to the limit.These were not simply flights. In the middle of the second world war, these were epic adventures where everyone looked like Bogart and Bacall.It paid to look cool, as by the time your New York flight splashed down on the calm waves of Foynes on the West coast of Ireland, your small intestine was probably in your Fedora.You see, unlike modern aircraft, flying boats didn’t fly above the weather, rather they kissed the clouds at the dizzying height of 8,000 feet, where head winds would often reduce the speed of the aircraft, over the ground, to 30 miles an hour.This meant that the trans-Atlantic crossing could take a bum-numbing 20 hours. As a result it’s just as well these flying boats featured full length beds, staterooms and proper dining tables.So there was nothing strange that winters’ evening in 1943, when five hours out of Foynes, a New York bound plane, battered by the elements, turned back towards Ireland.There was also nothing unusual in its tired passengers then climbing into a motor launch to be bumped over rough waves to an open dock.And as they ran towards the terminal building, there was nothing peculiar in the cold, miserable dark Irish rain…. but what greeted them inside was distinctly unique. To this day no one knows what possessed chef Joe Sheridan to put coffee, sugar, whiskey and cream into a glass and serve it to the perished passengers.But the combination of tired damp travellers with the four essential food groups of sugar, dairy, caffeine and alcohol, did the trick.“Hey Buddy,” an American is reported to have said, “is this Brazilian coffee?”“No,” said Joe, “that’s Irish Coffee.” Or so the legend goes…So it is fitting that Americans first ‘discovered’ Irish Coffee. After all a thousand years before Columbus was a glint in his daddy’s eye, the Irish monk St Brendan had in fact ‘discovered’ America.And if it weren’t for another American, journalist Stanton Delaplane, it is likely that Irish Coffee would today be just as forgotten as the details of the flight and the passengers who first tasted Ireland’s great contribution to world cuisine; because for eight long years Irish coffee spread no
further than across the estuary to a new bar. For in October 1945 the last scheduled flying boat left Foynes, captained by Charles Blair, who went on to marry flame haired Irish actress Maureen O’Hara.After reaching New York he rested and brought the first landplane back across the Atlantic to the new Shannon airport, now home to Joe Sheridan.Fast forward seven years. It’s 1952 and Pulitzer prize winning journalist Stanton Delaplane, no doubt browsing in the world’s first duty free, waited to board the Super Continental propeller, when something caught his well trained nose. He wandered into the bar and ordered an Irish Coffee… then he proceeded to order several more.Again here the details get a bit fuzzy (I blame the sugar) but what is certain is that on his return to San Francisco, Delaplane lit up the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle with praise for the miracle of Irish Coffee.Jack Koeppler and George Freeberg knew Delaplane and read his articles with great interest.They were the owners of The Buena Vista bar (known locally as the BV) and knew this new drink would be perfect to keep out the foggy, chilly Bay area’s winter nights.On one evening the three friends sat up all night experimenting, trying to crack the taste and the look of Sheridan’s creation.By all accounts the session was quite heated, and Delaplane nearly died on the way home when, exhausted by his efforts, he collapsed on the cable car tracks outside. But they had it cracked:“The whole world is going to drink Irish coffee,” Koeppler is reported to have said. “This drink is for the gods.”Irish Coffee was a huge and instant hit at the BV and soon orders were flooding into DeValera’s depressed Ireland.This was a real boost to the ailing Irish whiskey industry, helping some of the smaller distilleries such as Kilbeggan and Tullamore fight off closure for a few years.Even John Jameson climbed aboard the craze, sending literally shiploads of whiskey across the Atlantic.But with Irish coffee came two further problems. The first was cream.The BV had a hard time finding enough heavy cream to whip and ended up taking the problem to San Francisco’s mayor, a prominent dairy owner.After extensive research in to the subject, he discovered that when cream was aged for 48 hours and frothed to a precise consistency, it would float and not sink. The other problem that came with Irish Coffee was more enduring.When American GIs left post Martial Aid Europe, they did so carrying bottles of Scotch under their arms, while in the States, ‘Irish’ became synonymous with coffee, not whiskey.‘Irish’ had been tainted by the sugar, swamped by the cream and drowned by the coffee. Mortally wounded it wouldn’t be till the 1990s that Irish whiskey would finally fully distance itself from Joe Sheridan’s Trojan horse.As for Delaplane? The drink he made famous took over his life.“I can’t stand the stuff anymore,” he said before passing away in 1988 at the age of 80. A special exhibition of Delaplane’s life and work is mounted on wall of the BV.If you are ever in the area, San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café is on Hyde and Beach streets, where the cable cars meet the bay. They are still the largest single consumer of Irish whiskey in the country.Sixty years after its creation, Irish Coffee is now served the world over and it has been joined by a host of imitators.Anyone for French Coffee (brandy), Jamaican Coffee (rum) even the very dubious Gaelic Coffee (Scotch)? Best to stick to the original and as long as the whiskey you use is Irish, the brand is not critical.The original Irish Coffee would have used pure pot still whiskey.However by the 70s, the BV was using a whiskey specially mixed for them by Irish Distillers. Today they use a Cooley blend. Personally I prefer edgier (cheaper) blends, where grain whiskey is really good at cutting through the sugar and cream.In the States Brennan’s is ideal, in Europe for perfect Irish coffee pick any supermarket own-label Irish, or you could go with the times and try a hot Irishman.The Hot Irishman was conceived by husband and wife team Bernard and Rosemary Walsh as a way of simplifying the process of making Irish coffee.Here in one bottle is (just) about everything you need to make perfect Irish coffee every time… just add water.However they still leave the tricky bit to the consumer, and that’s putting on the floating cream head. Use double (or whipping cream), never the dreadful stuff that squirts out of a nozzle, whip it hardish and pour it onto the coffee over the back of a spoon.Then sit back and enjoy…