Irish coffee is a delicacy enjoyed by cappuccino connoisseurs and bourbon-guzzling bon vivants all over the world. Unfortunately, most of us have become apathetic as to what constitutes a real Irish coffee. And it’s no wonder: The quality of Irish coffee in restaurants and bars has been deteriorating for some time now. We’re essentially being served cheap coffee and even cheaper whiskey, topped with over-aerated whipped topping. But there’s an art to Irish coffee.
My grandad grew up on the grounds of Dublin Castle, right in the beating heart of Ireland’s capital city. Here, his mother worked as a tour guide and recounted the Castle’s history for the likes of John F. Kennedy and Grace Kelly. Although my grandad never drank, he is the type of man who’s good at everything he does and he worked in bars around Dublin in his youth, which is how he perfected his Irish coffee recipe and methodology.
On Christmas Day, 2013, my grandad made me an Irish coffee that ruined all other Irish coffees for me. I had turned 18 the month before, and had been ordering Irish coffees everywhere I went. “Coffee and whiskey,” I thought. “That must taste amazing!” And it did, for a while, because I had no point of reference.
Setting up shop
When my grandad set up his work station on Christmas Day, he stuck with the essentials: a tin of instant coffee, a teaspoon, a bottle of Jameson whiskey, an Irish coffee glass, a sugar bowl, a kettle, and a small tub of whipped cream.
I watched his method as closely as I could, dazzled by hands that acted of their own, practiced accord. First, a teaspoon of instant coffee, preferably rich or dark roast, with a teaspoon of sugar lumped in on top of it. The brand of coffee is relatively unimportant, although it’s better to use instant than machine-poured. You want a solid mix of coffee and sugar granules, as opposed to coffee-soaked sugar cubes.
Making your coffee Irish
Once you’ve got your base intact, it’s time to subject the specks of coffee and sugar to a deluge of whiskey — one Jameson-sized cap, with some spillage for good measure. The spillage is essential: Remember, this is an Irish coffee. Also, it’s important to choose your poison wisely. Scotch and bourbon may be popular all over the world, but Irish coffee necessitates Irish whiskey. (After all, the word “whiskey” is an Anglicisation of the Irish term “uisce beatha,” which translates to “water of life.”)
Among the many brands of whiskey distilled on the Emerald Isle are Paddy, Powers, Tullamore Dew, and Bushmills, but my grandad uses Jameson. After your spillage is assimilated into the mix, it’s time to stir it, combining each individual flavour with one another as the granules dissolve and settle into liquid agreement.
The cream is where it all goes wrong
With the Irish coffee’s core taken care of, my grandad turned to the tub of cream. It was freshly whipped, which meant that the texture was all wrong. With the same, whiskey-stained teaspoon, he stirred the cream into a gooey liquid.
This is essential, as it ensures that the cream flows smoothly. Use the full-fat stuff. You don’t want a fat-free cream or cream that’s too light to thicken or, worst of all, cream from a can. My grandad went with Avonmore, which is the most popular dairy brand in Ireland, but you can use any cream you like — just whip it until it’s thick and smooth, but still pourable and stop before any peaks start to form.
Don’t bottle the pour
Setting the readied cream aside, my grandad poured hot water, which had been boiled in a kettle several minutes previously, giving it time to cool down a bit, into the glass with the coffee and whiskey until it was about three-quarters of the way full.
Finally, it was time to crown the mix with thick cream. After a practice pour in a separate glass, he returned to his station and flipped the spoon upside-down so that its hollow was facing the floor. Then, holding the upside-down spoon about half an inch from the brim, he tilted the tub of cream, and poured it in a smooth stream onto the back of the spoon, which broke its impact and allowed it to trickle softly onto, as opposed to into, the coffee. A thick layer of cream began to form, buoyant atop the coffee and whiskey mixture.
It’s essential that you pour the cream in exactly this way, lest it drip down the sides of the glass, ruining the aesthetic integrity of the drink. Because the cream is smooth and pourable, the hovering spoon ensures that it’s introduced to the mix slowly enough to settle.
If you pour from a height, or use the wrong cream, you’ll ruin the layered effect. The cream acts as a sort of filter that sweetens and chills the hot mixture beneath, letting you enjoy it in slow sips or eager gulps. When the glass had filled up to the top, my granddad paved the cocktail’s meniscus smooth, and handed the Irish coffee to me. It was delicious.
To make my grandad’s Irish coffee, a timeless blueprint for something that is emphatically Irish, you will need:
1 teaspoon dark roast instant coffee
1 teaspoon brown sugar
30ml Irish whiskey
At least a cup of whipping cream
Add the instant coffee and sugar to an Irish coffee glass and stir to form as uniform of a mixture as you can. Add the whiskey, and stir again. Bring some water to a boil, let it cool for a few minutes, then add the hot but not scalding water to the coffee and whiskey mixture until the glass is about three quarters of the way full.
Whip the cream until it’s thick but still pourable (stop whipping before the soft peak stage), then pour the cream into the glass off the back of an inverted spoon to prevent it sinking into the mixture. Serve immediately.