When I opened Michael Jordan's Steak House in Chicago, in the heart of the Magnificent Mile shopping district in 2011, I had come back from San Francisco on a three month consulting stint. I had become accustomed to my life in the City by the Bay and all of its pleasures, both touristy and hidden, and this included enjoying Irish Coffees at Buena Vista in the afternoon while gazing out at the Golden Gate. So I was missing this treat while in Chicago. I had never had the pleasure of a true Irish Coffee until I moved to San Francisco and was surprised by how many places served it incorrectly across the country. One day at Jordan's, one of my bartenders asked me for green creme de menthe and whipped cream for an Irish Coffee. Not only did I intervene, I knew I had to teach this bar team a new tick. Now, 5 years later, I am starting to see more and more proper Irish Coffees on menus throughout Chicago, including some great variations.
The story of the Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista is a well documented one and from what can be seen, a straightforward one without too many myths, legends or tall tales attached to it. As stated in the many readily available press material from the Buena Vista, “The historic venture started on the night of November the 10th in 1952. Jack Koeppler, then-owner of the Buena Vista, challenged international travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help re-create a highly touted "Irish Coffee" served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Intrigued, Stan Accepted Jack’s invitation, and the pair began to experiment immediately.”
If and how the Irish Coffee did get a start at the Shannon Airport is unclear, however. Yet it was already a legendary drink which Koeppler wanted to provide for his guests at The Buena Vista. Now if you have never had a proper Irish Coffee, you may be asking yourself what’s the big deal about some coffee spiked with Iriish Whiskey and Bailey’s, topped with a mound of wavy whipped cream from a can and drizzled with green crème de menthe. Well, there isn’t anything special about that drink unless you’re my grandmother. But once you have had a properly built Irish Coffee and sipped the strong spiked coffee through the thick cool layer of floating cream, you will understand why it is such an alluring drink and why it is difficult for many people to execute properly.
A proper Irish Coffee should be a blend of black coffee sweetened with at least a teaspoon of sugar and then spiked with a healthy amount of quality Irish Whiskey. The cream should be heavy cream which has been whipped to thickness but not to a point where peaks form and it should be thin enough that it still pours over the back of a spoon. All is served in a preheated small wine glass. The affect is that the drinker has a rich and warming glass of coffee that is balanced by drinking it through the cool, unsweetened, layer of cream.
Koeppler and Delaplane had great trouble with getting their cream to float properly and sought out many avenues to solving their problem including traveling to the Shannon Airport. The answer came eventually from the then mayor of San Francisco who was also a dairy farmer. It was determined that the fresh cream needed to rest for 48 hours to develop the proper composition to allow it to be frothed to the point where it could float.
Ordering an Irish Coffee often brings about a deer in the headlights look from many a bartender, but at the Buena Vista it is a proud tradition but I would guess that the bartenders there sometimes get a bit tired of preparing literally hundreds of these a day for both tourists and locals a like. Yet a trip to the Buena Vista is a must while in San Francisco and a must for anyone who wants an eye opening experience with their Buena Vista. Upon entering you will see the bar lined with dozens of signature cups with wisps of steam floating upwards as they are heated in preparation for the rush of cold and thirsty customers waking in from Ghirardelli Square.
On the surface the Irish coffee is a simple drink, but it is these simple drinks (like the margarita and daiquiri) which have been mangled and misunderstood by bartenders and which have in-turn turned off customers from their beauty. However, as simple as it is, there are some key steps needed:
Use a small wine glass which has been pre-headed with hot water
Use a quality Irish Whiskey (the Buena Vista swears by Tullamore Dew)
Use a strong, quality coffee
Use 1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar, the cream will not float without it.
Whip the cream until it thickens and the surface looks smooth but not to the point where peaks form. I have found this time varies from 1 to 2 min depending on the cream. It should look like the constancy of wet pain in a can.
Fill a small wine glass with warm water
In a metal bowl whip the heavy cream with a whisky until thickened and bubbles begin to dissipate and the surface looks smooth but not to the point where peaks form. Transfer to a smaller pitcher if preferred.
Empty water and add 2 teaspoons of sugar (I prefer turbanado or “sugar in the raw”) along with about 3.5 to 4 oz Black Coffee, Stir to dissolve sugar
Add 1.5 oz Irish Whiskey (Tullamore Dew) and stir, you should be left with a good lip to layer the cream.
Give the cream a few more good whips and then pour over the back of a spoon held just over the surface of the coffee. Pour until there is a good 1/2” “collar” of cream above the coffee.