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Robb Report Vices

Art of the Irish Coffee

Shaun Tolson

It’s been said of Irish coffee that the concoction is a good way to ruin three otherwise fine ingredients: coffee, cream, and whiskey. We wholeheartedly disagree. When properly made, an Irish coffee delivers a taste unlike anything else, but the key is that it must be properly made. Of even greater importance is what goes into the drink—and what does not. Baileys, for example, doesn’t belong, not if you’re intent on making an authentic Irish coffee. As for what makes the cut, it’s believed that Joe Sheridan, who invented the drink, once declared that an Irish coffee requires

Cream as rich as an Irish brogue,
Coffee as strong as a friendly hand,
Sugar as sweet as the tongue of a rogue,
Whiskey as smooth as the wit of the land.

That recipe may be poetic, but it’s not exactly enlightening. Sean Muldoon, founder and general manager of the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in Manhattan’s financial district, bases his recipe on an Irish coffee presentation given by Dale DeGroff (author of The Craft of the Cocktail) in 2000. “We felt if we wanted to be the best Irish whiskey bar in the world, we had to get the Irish coffee right,” Muldoon says. To accomplish that, the Dead Rabbit team uses Powers Gold Irish whiskey, Stone Street blended coffee, Trickling Springs heavy cream, and a demerara syrup (click here for the recipe). “We use Powers Gold Irish whiskey because of its spicy pot-still character, which we feel complements the coffee much better than regular blended Irish whiskey,” Muldoon says. “We use Stone Street blended coffee simply because it is local to us, and we use Trickling Springs cream because of its high fat content and rich vanilla taste.”

According to Franky Marshall, vice president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild of New York, the secret to the perfect Irish coffee is all in the balance. “The proportions have to be right for this drink to be delicious,” she explains. “When it’s done right, it’s magical.” Marshall urges home bartenders to start with good-quality, hot coffee, but not necessarily espresso. In her opinion, that may be too strong and could overwhelm the other ingredients.

Other respected bartenders take a slightly different approach. Jeff Josenhans, a mixologist and sommelier at the US Grant Hotel in San Diego, doesn’t mind using espresso. “For me, the perfect Irish coffee uses a pure pot-still Irish whiskey like Redbreast, with muscovado sugar,” he says. “An espresso, just slightly Americano, is poured into a smaller-style glass, similar to a punch glass with a handle. The whipping cream is then shaken to order and floated in a thick layer over the coffee. Lastly, freshly grated cinnamon is a beautiful touch.”

While there may be a devout allegiance to the authentic Irish coffee recipe, deviation is allowed—it’s not as if those who reinterpret the drink must fear violent retribution. Tim Herlihy, the national brand ambassador for Tullamore D.E.W., is one who both heralds the original and embraces the new iterations. “People are taking their Irish coffee more seriously,” he says, “but people forget that it should be crafted as a cocktail, it should be made with that level of detail.”

Herlihy’s favorite reimagining is served at Grace in New York, where it masquerades as a cocktail named the Blind Abbot. The drink essentially is an iced version of an Irish coffee and includes Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey, Galliano ristretto, cinnamon syrup, angostura bitters, and coffee. That mixture is then shaken over ice and topped with cream. Curtis McMillan, a cocktail historian and mixologist who will open Wink & Nod, a speakeasy-style bar in Boston’s South End at the end of this week, makes a frozen variation of an Irish iced coffee and uses poteen, an Irish moonshine, which ranges in proof from 120 to 160. The strength of the spirit is important, McMillan says, because of the unavoidable dilution that takes place when ice is added to alcohol.

One of the more ingenious variations on the Irish coffee comes from Derek Brown, a cocktail and spirits writer (and judge) and the owner of four cocktail-forward establishments in the Washington, D.C., area. At his bar Columbia Room, Brown infuses the whipped cream with Irish whiskey, rather than adding the whiskey to the cocktail. This, he says, allows for better uniformity, delivers the potency of the alcohol (but includes less of it), and makes an ideal way for a home bartender to serve Irish coffees to a large group of guests. “We wanted people to encounter the Irish coffee in a new way with the same basic profile,” he says. “It adds a surprise element. It’s that juxtaposition of having a different delivery system for the alcohol and the fun that goes along with that.”

 

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