Tourists and locals flock to San Francisco’s famous Buena Vista Café year-round to order the spot’s acclaimed Irish coffee, and the hot, sweet and boozy concoction is famous for good reason. The blend of sugar, hot coffee, Irish whiskey and cold whipped cream makes for a tantalizing delight.
Whether you’re a Buena Vista Café superfan or merely a lover of boozy, caffeinated cocktails, here’s the best Irish coffee recipe to DIY from the comfort of your own home.
What Is Irish Coffee?
Irish coffee was likely created in Foynes, a small town in Ireland. Here’s how it happened: According to the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum, for a short time in the the late 1930s and early 1940s, Foynes was the center of the aviation world. Why? Pan Am’s luxury flying boat, dubbed the “Yankee Clipper” landed at Foynes July 9th, 1939, becoming the first direct commercial passenger flight from the U.S. to Europe. In 1943, local restaurateur Brendan O’Regan opened an eatery and coffee shop in the Foynes terminal building and hired a chef named Joe Sheridan.
That winter, a late-night departing flight caught in bad weather was forced to return to Foynes. “When Joe was asked to prepare something warm for the passengers, he decided to put some good Irish whiskey into their coffees,” writes Richard Foss in Food in the Air and Space. “One of the passengers approached the chef and thank him for the wonderful coffee. He asked Joe did he use Brazilian coffee? Joe jokingly answer, ‘No that was Irish coffee!'”
Still, many people associate Irish coffee with the San Francisco restaurant and bar Buena Vista Café, and it’s likely because they claim to have brought the drink to America. According to CBS Sunday Morning. in 1952, the then-owner and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle joined forces to replicate the Irish coffee drink made famous in Foynes. After much trial and error, a trip to the airport and even consulting a dairy owner, the Irish coffee recipe was introduced to Americans, who quickly embraced the stuff.
The original Irish coffee served at the café includes two sugar cubes, hot coffee, just over an ounce of Irish whiskey and a layer of heavy cold cream that has been aged for 48 hours and whipped. This is poured into a 6-ounce goblet.
Of course, precious few cocktail origin stories are undisputed. According to the San Francisco news station KQED, there are other competing stories that place the drink’s birth at a 1940s pub in Dublin. Another theory is traced to a 1948 New York Tribune article, which includes a recipe that looks strikingly familiar to modern Irish coffee recipes.
But no matter where it came from, the drink nearly always includes a combination of sugar, coffee, Irish whiskey and whipped cream. Consumers can now find it served at bars and restaurants across the country. We’ll cheers to that!
What Whiskey Is in Irish Coffee?
The Buena Vista Café uses a unique blend of Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, but any smooth Irish whiskey will do. We think one of the best Irish whiskey options for beginners is Jameson, which packs aromas of dried apricot and a vanilla-forward palate with hints of smoke and clove.
What Kind of Coffee Do You Use for Irish Coffee?
The Buena Vista Café uses Peerless Coffee, but any coffee you enjoy will suffice. For the most authentic flavor, choose a smooth coffee without any added flavors or syrups.
Irish Coffee Variations
True Irish coffee uses unsweetened heavy cream to maintain the sweetness from the drink’s sugar contents, but when making a DIY cocktail, you can mix it up however you like. Try a vegan Irish coffee option, or add different flavorings to your coffee or cream mixture to best suit your tastes.
How to Make Irish Coffee
Recipe by Jacy Topps
- 6 ounces hot, freshly brewed coffee
- 1 ½ ounces Irish whiskey (preferably Jameson)
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 2 ounces unsweetened heavy whipping cream, slightly whipped*
Preheat a heatproof glass mug by pouring hot water into it to take the chill off. Wait just a couple of minutes to fully heat your mug. Remove hot water from the glass.
Fill the warmed mug about ¾ full of coffee.
Add brown sugar and stir until fully dissolved.
Add the whiskey and stir to incorporate.
Float the whipped cream by slowly pouring it over a warm spoon onto the coffee, being careful not to break the coffee’s surface. Drink while hot.
*To whip the cream: Make sure that your heavy whipping cream is as cold as possible. You can either use a cocktail shaker to shake for a couple of minutes to whip the cream or whip in a bowl with a whisk for two minutes.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023