H. Joseph Ehrmann on Irish Coffee

H. Joseph Ehrmann, better known as H., started his career at fifteen years old as a cook on the beaches of New Jersey. Many positions, restaurants, and bars later, he renovated one of the oldest saloons in San Francisco and reopened it as Elixir. The bar has won numerous accolades for its cocktails, marketing programs, and atmosphere. Beyond running Elixir, H. is currently designing his next venue, consulting spirits companies, and creating a cocktail program for Ford's Filling Station in Los Angeles. He can be found in Elixir just about every day of the week.

Irish Coffee

I have always been a fan of the Irish Coffee, but have long lamented the difficulty in finding one that meets my standards (hazard of the trade). The best I've had was at my local Irish pub when I lived in Madrid. The problems I generally encounter are that they are usually too small for my taste and are made with sub-par ingredients. But times are changing in American cocktail culture, and the Irish Coffee is starting to reemerge in parallel with the newly increasing conviction for a better cup o' Joe.

Legend has it that the drink was first created in 1940's Ireland by a Shannon Airport bartender named Joe Sheridan, and then brought to San Francisco's Buena Vista by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter named Stanton Delaplane. The "BV" has since served countless Irish Coffees, featuring its private labeled Irish whiskey to tourists and locals alike, this barkeep included (though I've heard rumor that they recently switched to a major brand… I'm due for a visit).

While the classic interpretation of this magical mixture is fairly simple, this version is based on my own beliefs, experiences, and palate, having passed an exceptional number by my lips in my travels. If the perfect cocktail is made the way the customer likes it, consider me the customer here.

As with food recipes, the core of any good cocktail is a combination of high-quality ingredients and care in creation. If you were to say that to me in an interview, you'd be on your way to a job.

To start with, let's look at the ingredients. Two core issues in an Irish Coffee are the Irish and the coffee. Use a good Irish whiskey, not some sub-par well swill. Make sure it is from Ireland and barrel aged. I prefer Jameson, but Bushmills, Powers or the like will do. There's no need to go to a higher level like Red Breast or Black Bush, as the coffee and other ingredients are going to mask the complexities of more aged whiskeys. Some people like to burn the whiskey in the glass, claiming that it caramelizes the sugars and adds to the flavor. I disagree with this practice, as all you are doing is burning off the alcohol… and what good is that?

Next, use good coffee. This is a coffee after all, and in this caffeinated society, we all know that bad coffee is simply not worth drinking. Most bars keep cheap, undrinkable coffee on hand. It sits in a drip pot with the warmer on all day until, by the time it touches your nice whiskey, it is nothing more than burnt heartburn in a cup. If you want to test a bar's Irish Coffee, try their coffee first. Just ask for a taste, as you might with a draft beer. I recommend a Vienna roast--it's not as hearty as a French roast, and it pairs well with the characteristics of Irish whiskey. If you can, use a French press. You'll get the best quality brew (about two tablespoons for one cup).

Now that we have the core covered, let's look at the supporting players.

First, use real cream. Heavy cream. Thick, gooey "my grandmother used to make everything with this" cream. Half and half doesn't cut the mustard, nor does it whip well, and this cream is gonna get a whippin'. For the diet conscious or less gluttonous, try light cream. It will whip well and still give you a nice drinking experience, sip after sip. Secondly, use brown sugar. It gives a richer taste than granulated white sugar. Finally, use a large mug. Sure, there are valid arguments that a "real Irish Coffee" has its own glass, a dainty little cup on a stem, but this is my recipe and I like a full mug.

Now, for the ceremony of preparing it properly. Put a bar spoon (teaspoon) of brown sugar at the bottom of your mug. Add a shot of Irish whiskey (1.5 oz is normal, but tweak it based on your taste). Fill the mug with hot, fresh coffee until about a half inch from the top. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.

In a cold metal container, whip about 1-2 ounces (a shot) of heavy whipping cream, just enough so that it thickens with fluidity but doesn't quite harden like Cool Whip. In the bar we use a mixing cup and a commercial milkshake whipper. You can use a bowl and a whisk at home, or they now sell these funky little AA battery-driven whippers in many kitchen stores. Do not sweeten the cream. You've already added your sweetener to the coffee. Now rest your spoon, face down, on the ridge of your mug and slowly pour the whipped cream over the spoon so that it rests on top. The resulting drink will look a bit like a pint of Guinness. A true work of art.

Now, for the drinking experience. This is possibly the most important part and the key to true Irish Coffee enjoyment. Do not use a straw. Sip from the edge of the glass, drawing in the hot, sweet, earthy, roasted, malty cocktail tempered by the cool, rich cream. You'll get a great tasting drink with every sip, right down to the last.

San Francisco has a proud, if exaggerated history with Irish Coffee, yet there are only a few places known for this great winter warmer. Stand up for your rights and demand a better cocktail. As the clouds roll in and moisten our Northern California skies, try a well-made Irish Coffee instead of that half-caf soy latte. Before you know it, the sun will be shining and you'll find yourself a summertime Irish coffee drinker as well. Slainte!