General Tso’s chicken is one example of a dish that you think is Chinese but isn’t actually from China. Ditto chicken tikka masala, a dish common to Indian restaurants that was actually created in Scotland. And given the ubiquity of Irish coffee in bars and restaurants around the world, it would be easy to assume that this drink falls into this same category of culturally and geographically appropriated food. Sure, it calls itself "Irish," but is Irish coffee actually Irish? It turns out that Irish coffee was, in fact, created in Ireland, and the history of Irish coffee—along with the story of how this spiked drink spread around the world—is plenty more interesting than just some Irishman pouring whiskey in his coffee cup and calling it a cocktail.
These days, there are several variations on the traditional Irish coffee recipe, but the original Irish coffee was created at the flying boat terminal in Foynes, Ireland. Yes, you read that right. Irish coffee was invented at a flying boat terminal. So, let’s start with the most obvious questions here. What is a flying boat, and why did it need a terminal? And why were people drinking whiskey in their coffee with some sugar and whipped cream at a building designed for flying boats, not a pub?
According to Margaret O'Shaughnessy, director of the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, which is also now home to the Irish Coffee Centre, a flying boat was an aircraft. It was basically a giant seaplane that was capable of traveling long distances, and back in the 1930s, Pan American World Airways ran a fleet of flying boats from New York to Ireland. “They flew from Long Island in the beginning, from Port Washington, to our village,” explains O’Shaughnessy. “The first international passenger flights on the Atlantic came to our small village of Foynes.”
The flying boat was a less-than-reliable bit of aircraft, however. O’Shaughnessy describes them as, “big, big cumbersome things.” They weren’t pressurized so, by necessity, flew fairly low over the ocean, and that meant these flying boats were very susceptible to changing weather conditions. “A flight would leave here for New York, and if the weather became really too bad or atrocious on the journey, the pilot would have to make a decision to either continue to the United States or turn back and wait for better weather.”
That’s exactly what happened in October 1943. A flying boat that had departed from the terminal in Foynes had to turn around due to bad weather, and, as O’Shaughnessy tells it, “When they got word here that the people were coming back—Morse code, by the way, was the means of communication—they brought in the staff and the chef into the restaurant, to prepare food and drink for the weary passengers coming back. And Joe Sheridan, who was the chef here, he decided he was going to put some whiskey into the coffee that would warm them, and that’s how Irish coffee started out.”
The official, original Irish coffee recipe from Sheridan is a five step process with only four ingredients: hot coffee, sugar, cream, and whiskey. The first step is to preheat your glass with hot water. Pour that water out, then add a teaspoon of brown sugar and “a good measure of Irish whiskey” into the warm glass. Stir that together, pour in the hot coffee, and stir again. Pour lightly whipped cream so it floats on top of the hot coffee mixture, and serve.
This recipe was actually innovative at the time. Though whiskey was popular in Ireland, the combination of whiskey and coffee wasn’t some long-kept Irish secret. “No, it wouldn’t have been a ritual or a habit,” explains O’Shaughnessy. “He was just looking at ways of warming the passengers, and, as we all know, whiskey can warm up that stomach fairly lively. Rather than serve it up a straight drink, he just put it in the coffee. I don’t know, I can’t tell you why. Maybe that’s how he like it himself? I have no idea.”
The layers of dark coffee against the white cream were also an important part of the drink—and the reason why it was eventually served in a glass rather than a ceramic, opaque coffee mug—since they added to the so-called “eye appeal” of the drink. That visual was important because the staff at the flying boat terminal in this small Irish town were trying to impress the many famous Americans who came through. Seriously. “Because this was 1939 to 1947, that’s the period when you had all the Hollywood movie stars transiting from the United States to Europe to entertain the troops during the war,” says O’Shaughnessy. “You had John F. Kennedy through here, you had all the big stars—Bob Hope, Bing Crosby.” There are even photos of Marilyn Monroe, just chilling at the flying boat terminal and sipping on an Irish coffee.
That travel between the United States and Ireland is eventually how the drink made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. “Joe was serving [Irish coffees], and a guy called Stanton Delaplane, a journalist from San Francisco, came through. He tried the drink, and he went back to San Francisco, and he met up with his friend Jack Koeppler," O’Shaughnessy explains, "who was the owner then of the Buena Vista Cafe on Fisherman’s Wharf" in 1952. As legend has it, Koeppler was intrigued by the drink and tried to recreate it with Delaplane's help. The duo got the whiskey and the coffee part right. So much so that, according to a report from SF Gate, the pursuit of the perfect Irish coffee, "nearly killed Delaplane, who, after sampling dozens of failed experiments, nearly passed out on the cable car tracks."
But they struggled to get the cream to float on top as it did in Sheridan's Irish coffee. Koeppler was so obsessed with getting it right, that he even went to Ireland, specifically to Shannon Airport, which had replaced the flying boat terminal in Foynes as the main hub, to taste it for himself.
Eventually, the mayor of San Francisco George Christopher, who was also coincidentally a dairy farmer, came into the Buena Vista, and suggested that Koeppler and Delaplane age the cream for 48 hours before frothing it up, to get the right consistency. It worked, and Irish coffee is still made at the Buena Vista Cafe the old-fashioned way, in glasses without stems and all. It remains an incredibly popular drink, and bartenders at the San Francisco tavern will make anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000 Irish coffees each day, according to a report from Punch.
The biggest difference between the San Franciscan Irish coffee recipe and Sheridan's original is that the whiskey comes after the hot coffee. The recipe has been coopted and changed over the years. Some folks add Bailey's either in addition to or in lieu of straight whiskey, others get spicy with a dash of nutmeg. But no matter where you go, you'll be able to find some variation on the boozy coffee beverage Sheridan created for cold and weary flying boat passengers all those decades ago. "What I am told by those folks who say they are the experts is that it’s the best known drink in the world, because no matter what country in the world you go to, Irish coffee will be on the menu," says O’Shaughnessy with pride. "And that is a fact.”