Irish Coffee

Ian Wisniewski on a winter favourite
By Ian Wisniewski
Before cappuccino, espresso, latte and macchiato became part of our daily vocabulary, the ultimate choice was an Irish coffee rather than anything Italian. An inspired combination of Irish whiskey, coffee and cream, one sip could take you straight to that special place.

However, once other options of coffee fortified with spirits appeared on the scene, Irish coffee became a mere example of the genre, rather than being definitive. But then that’s often the price of success.

While classic drinks usually have a disputed provenance, with a choice of possible datelines and contenders vying for authorship, there’s just one factual story behind the creation of Irish coffee.

When trans-Atlantic flights began, the aircraft were either flying boats or super constellations. These got you there, but not in one go, as refuelling stops were an inevitable part of the journey.

The last stop before crossing the Atlantic and reaching Gander in Newfoundland, was Foynes, on the river Shannon in County Limerick, south-western Ireland. Rather than an entirely pragmatic interlude, passengers disembarked during refuelling, and were able to take refreshments in the airport bar.

One particular flight during the winter of 1942 left Foynes on schedule, but soon had to return there, due to adverse weather (which all trans-Atlantic flights were dependent on). At least the disappointed passengers were catered for by the chief barman, Joe Sheridan.

He decided to offer them coffee rather than the usual cup of tea, thinking this would be more appropriate for them as they were mostly American.

Joe also thought they deserved something more sustaining than just coffee, and added some Powers Irish whiskey.

Sweetening the coffee with sugar, his final touch was adding a surface layer of fresh, lightly whipped Irish cream.

As Joe had a great visual sense, he served this in a stemmed (heatproof) glass rather than a cup, which showed the contrast between the black coffee and white cream on the surface. Moreover, serving this without a spoon wasn’t an oversight, but another piece of strategic planning. By ensuring that the hot coffee was sipped through the cool cream, he provided another effective contrast.

And the verdict? It was a great success of course, and being an innovation there were also questions to be asked. “Is this Brazilian coffee?” wondered one of the American passengers. Joe’s reply was “No. That’s Irish Coffee,” and his spontaneous wit provided an enduring name.

Having made such a spectacular debut, Joe immediately put Irish coffee onto the menu. And he only had to serve the first few customers with an Irish coffee, before everyone was asking for the same.

As Foynes was effectively a ‘gateway’ between Europe and America, it proved to be a showcase from which Irish coffee was launched onto an international circuit, becoming a fixture in numerous bars and restaurants in the USA and across Europe.

When Shannon Airport took over from Foynes as the major refuelling hub during the 1950s, Irish coffee also relocated there and became the airport’s official welcome drink.

A bronze plaque was subsequently unveiled at Shannon Airport in Joe Sheridan’s honour, as a gesture of gratitude from Ireland’s whiskey distillers.

Irish coffee has also achieved a rare distinction in having an annual competition devoted to it, with contestants from around the world competing in The Irish Coffee Championships. Held in Foynes, this is actually part of a four day festival that features some of Ireland’s finest entertainers.

First held in 1993, a major development in the championships was an innovation section in 2001, with judges looking for imaginative alternatives to the traditional recipe, though this still had to include Powers whiskey and coffee. Meanwhile, judges continued paying special attention to the preparation of the ‘classic’ Powers Irish coffee. The competition was sponsored by Powers until 2002.

Unfortunately the mention of Irish coffee can evoke a blase response, along the lines of ‘been there, drunk that.’

What kind of an attitude is this? Irish coffee delivers a great combination of flavours, temperatures and textures, and its heritage also provides a story that fulfills our desire for nostalgia. Moreover, coupled with the current trend for bartenders to revisit and contemporise classic drinks, Irish coffee could easily be the next beneficiary, and attain an irresistible, retro-chic status.