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how to make irish coffee

Thank transatlantic air travel for Ireland’s famous spiked joe, Irish Coffee. And we have the original recipe.

A shot of Irish whiskey rests upon the table in front of me next to a stemmed glass, a pot of coffee, and a pitcher of fresh cream. It’s 11 a.m. in Foynes, Ireland, and I’m about to learn how to make a traditional Irish Coffee in the exact spot where it was invented 80 years ago.

I’m participating in an Irish Coffee Masterclass at the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum, which is located in what used to be the terminal for the Foynes Airport. Still groggy with jet lag — I’ve only been in Ireland a few days — I’m in the travel state of mind that needs coffee to stay alert, but alcohol to keep me going, so this cocktail class is well-timed.

Before the eager participants start pouring and stirring, however, instructor Valerie Foley explains how and why the quintessential cool-weather quaff began in this small town on the country’s rugged west coast.

Irish Coffee, Invented at the Airport

irish coffee history
Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller drink an Irish Coffee.

The answer, we learn, has everything to do with early airplane travel.

Back in the days before jet planes, Boeing’s fleet of 314 Clippers carried passengers between North America and Europe. Dubbed “flying boats” because they took off from and landed in water, these behemoths weren’t pressurized, so they flew at low elevations and relied on good weather for a successful journey between continents. With clear skies, the 35 passengers on board could count on a restful sleep in their luxurious compartments after a gourmet sit-down meal in the dining room.

One stormy night in 1943, a flight left Foynes for New York but was forced to turn around a couple hours after takeoff and return to the airport to wait out the weather. Passengers deplaned and headed to O’Regan’s Restaurant inside the terminal building for some food and drink. The chef, Joe Sheridan, served the customers hot coffee to stave off the damp. “For a bit of jazz he decided to throw in some whiskey, just to heat them up a little bit more,” explains Foley. “And because he was a chef, he wanted the presentation to be nice, so he added a little bit of cream on top, and that was your Irish Coffee.”

Sheridan used Powers Gold Label Whiskey, one of the country’s original Irish whiskeys made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley. He topped the drink with lightly whipped fresh cream, poured in such a way that it floated atop the coffee. The strong, sweet, and warming drink turned into a coveted transit tipple. 

Chef Sheridan’s Irish Coffee Gains Popularity

When the Foynes Airport closed in 1945, and flights moved across the Shannon Estuary to the new airport in Shannon, Chef Sheridan and his Irish Coffee crossed over, too. In fact, Irish Coffee became so popular, the Buena Vista restaurant in San Francisco poached Chef Sheridan in 1952 and brought him and his winning recipe to America, says Foley.

I’m skeptical that whiskey in coffee could taste good enough to spirit a chef across an ocean, but I’m here with an open mind. It’s time to replicate Sheridan’s cocktail accomplishment.

How to Make an Irish Coffee

how to make irish coffee

Following Foley’s precise instructions, I add hot water to my glass to preheat it, then pour it out. Next I dump in a heaping teaspoon of granulated brown sugar, then I fill the glass with coffee to within an inch of the brim. In goes that shot of Powers Gold Label. I stir everything well to dissolve the sugar and mix in the whiskey. Then I lightly whip the pitcher of cream and perform the last, critical step.

The trick, Foley instructs, is to drizzle the cream over the back of a metal spoon so it hits the hot liquid slowly in order to stay afloat—just like how those heavy flying boats eased onto the water during a landing.

I’m proud to report that my cream soon becomes an airy layer of white, icing the top of the concoction. I bring it to my lips and sip. The whiskey-spiked coffee travels through the cream and delivers a fresh, sweet Irish cream flavor that compliments the rich coffee and smooth, lightly spiced whiskey. It’s a balanced mug of morning mischief.

A lot has changed in the eight decades since that dark and stormy night—jet planes fly well above the weather, and the golden age of air travel is a distant memory, like liquids in a carry-on—but I like to think this Irish Coffee is every bit as satiating and fortifying now as it was then. It’s no wonder this drink born of transatlantic travel boasts a reputation that’s traveled around the world.

Recipe: Irish Coffee

Ingredients (serves one):

1.5 oz. Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey

1 heaping tsp. granulated brown sugar

Hot water

Pot of medium-roast hot coffee

Pitcher of cream, lightly whipped 


Pour hot water into a 12-ounce toddy glass to preheat, discard water. Add sugar and whiskey to the glass, then fill with coffee, leaving an inch or so for the cream. Stir with a metal spoon to dissolve the sugar. Pour cream into the glass over the back of the metal spoon; this prevents the cream from sinking. Do not stir the cream—the true Irish Coffee flavor comes from drinking the coffee and whiskey through the cream. Enjoy!

—Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum

What Else to Drink in Ireland

Sip a Guinness, the country’s most iconic beer

The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin walks visitors through the storied beer’s history, as well as the beer-making process. Exhibits in the experiential space also bust some myths, like the fact that Guinness is not actually a health product (it was marketed as one in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s). After touring through the fermentation plant-turned-beer museum, visit rooftop bar Gravity, the highest pub in Dublin, for a pint of the malty, chocolaty Guinness Draft Stout with a view. guinness-storehouse.com  

Drink a dram of Irish whiskey

Matured for three years in wooden casks in Ireland, Irish whiskey starts a mash of malted and unmalted barley in a single copper pot still, and often blends with grain whiskey. Usually triple distilled, this renders it smoother than a single malt from Scotland. Since Irish whiskey’s mash bill weighs toward barley, it’s not as sweet as American bourbon nor as spicy as Canadian rye whisky. Famous brands include Jameson, Powers, and Egan’s.

Visitors to the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum in Foynes, Ireland can try an Irish Coffee at O’Regan’s Restaurant, and groups of 10 or more can book an Irish Coffee Masterclass.

The Mint Julep
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