Back in the day, the Shannon Airport in Ireland was known far and wide for its magical Irish Coffee.
Great, if you are at the airport. Not so great, if you live in America and want a little taste of the Emerald Isle. This was the quandary that faced two disparate gents back in the ‘old days.’ One was Tom Bergin, then owner of the eponymous Bergin’s Irish Pub in Los Angeles; the other fellow was Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista in San Francisco. Different decades — the former was opened in the 1930s, the latter in the 1940s — and different men, but the result was the same. Both of them managed to recreate that famous Shannon Irish Coffee and both bars still serve virtually identical recipes today. While each spot has its own distinct character, you can be assured that you will be sipping history in a glass when you have either one of their famous Irish Coffees.
The Shannon Airport story begins at Foynes airbase in Limerick. By 1940, the base was a bustling hub for international VIP travel. In 1942, a restaurant opened, helmed by a young Irish chef named Joe Sheridan. At this point, the versions of the story vary, but the most lyrical one (courtesy of IrishWhiskeyTrail.com) is as follows: One stormy night, a plane was forced to turn back and land at Foynes.
To calm the frazzled passengers, Sheridan whipped up a mixture of hot coffee, Irish whiskey, brown sugar and a float of fresh whipped cream. As the passengers reverently sipped the brew, one of them was heard to utter, “Is this Brazilian coffee?” You can guess Joe’s answer ,of course. “No,” he said, “It’s Irish Coffee.” When Foynes closed, Joe moved himself and his Irish Coffee to the new Shannon International Airport. Slightly different versions of the story exist, but all reach the same conclusion, i.e., Irish Coffee was born.
Tom Bergin received a copy of the recipe from San Francisco columnist Stanton Delaplane, who brought it back after a trip to Ireland that took him through the Shannon Airport. It has been on Bergin’s menu ever since and Bergin’s has been dubbed “The House of Irish Coffee”; Angelenos call it home year round.
The Buena Vista’s journey to the Irish Coffee was a bit more circuitous. Owner Jack Koeppler challenged international travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help him recreate Sheridan’s recipe. The two worked feverishly, unable to duplicate the manner in which the cream floated gently on top of the drink. San Francisco’s mayor, who also owned a dairy, solved the problem. When cream was aged for 48 hours and precisely whipped, it would nestle gently atop the coffee/whiskey mix. Today, the Buena Vista can make upwards of 2,000 Irish Coffees a day.
Not surprisingly, the bars’ recipes are similar, but each has a slightly different take in terms of sugar, proportions, and coffee choice. One thing they both agree on is the choice of whiskey, Tullamore DEW, which according to Buena Vista GM Larry Silva was the original whiskey used by Sheridan. Why share the recipe? Because, as Silva says, “We want everyone to have a fabulous Irish Coffee.”
Below are the recipes from both Bergin’s and the Buena Vista. As mentioned, both are remarkably similar, but it is interesting from a historical and mixological point of view how each of them is unique. You be the judge; we think both are winners. And, after mixing these up, perhaps you will try your own hand at customizing an Irish Coffee with one of the tremendous Irish whiskeys on the market. Just remember, use the thickest cream (double or manufacturer’s cream) possible so it floats like a veil of fog concealing the majesty beneath.
Tom Bergin’s Irish Coffee
Courtesy of Owner Derek Schreck
- 1/4 oz. Simple Syrup (or substitute one sugar cube)
- 1 1/2 oz. Tullamore DEW Irish Whiskey
- Dark roast coffee
- Chilled Irish cream (or a heavy milk fat cream such as manufacturing cream)
Preparation: Warm a toddy glass by filling it with hot water. Never build an Irish Coffee in a cold glass. Once the glass is warm, dump out the water. Add your simple syrup and Tullamore Dew whiskey. Fill with dark roast coffee (Tom Bergin’s use a proprietary house blend – Tom Bergin’s House Blend – from Picacho Coffee Roasters) leaving about a 1/4 inch of room at the top. Whip the Irish cream until it is just thick enough to stick to an overturned finger. Gently float the cream on top.
The Buena Vista Irish Coffee
Courtesy of the Buena Vista
- 2 C & H Sugar Cubes (2 tsp.)
- 2 1/2 oz. Hot Fresh Organic Coffee
- 1 1/3 oz. Tullamore DEW Irish Whiskey
- Heavy Whipped Cream, lightly blended but still pourable
Preparation: Preheat a 6 ounce glass. Add the two sugar cubes. Add 2 1/2 ounces of coffee and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add Irish Whiskey. Top off with whipped cream.
840 S. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA
The Buena Vista
2765 Hyde St.
San Francisco, CA