Mastering the Irish Coffee With Jillian Vose

In "Masters of X," we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, The Dead Rabbit's Jillian Vose tackles the Irish Coffee, with help from Dale DeGroff.

For a great Irish Coffee, step away from the oversized mug, says Jillian Vose, beverage director at New York’s The Dead Rabbit.

“If you can do anything to alleviate screwing this drink up, use a six-ounce glass,” Vose insists. “The size of the glass is a huge reason why a lot of people get it wrong.” A voluminous cup often results in too much coffee, she continues, which “over saturates” the cocktail and throws it out of balance.

But it’s more than just glassware that sets The Dead Rabbit’s version of the drink—widely considered to be the best in the city—apart. As perhaps the best-known cocktail to showcase the Irish whiskey, it proved a natural fit for the menu when the bar first opened in 2013. (After all, Dead Rabbit owners Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, both Irish natives, consider their Irish whiskey collection, which consists of more than 200 bottles, to be a particular point of pride.) In the years since, they’ve sold a few hundred Irish Coffees each week, and subjected the four-ingredient mixture of coffee, whiskey, sweetener and cream to extreme scrutiny.

Although Dead Rabbit already had a lauded version on the menu, in January 2016 they decided to go back and workshop the recipe a second time—owing to the bar’s “’if it isn’t broken, fix it anyway’ mentality,” says Vose. To help develop the recipe, the team decided to bring on “King Cocktail” himself, Dale DeGroff, whose own version of the drink had been a favorite of Muldoon’s for years. “He and I spent the day going through different iterations of the Irish Coffee… [going] over countless proportions of ingredients and different Irish whiskies,” says Vose.

To begin, they decided to consider the base spirit, and determine the correct measure. Though the bar had previously called on an ounce-and-a-half of robust Powers Gold whiskey, they opted for the lighter Clontarf in the revamped version. “It was important to choose an Irish whiskey that would shine, but wouldn’t overpower the other ingredients,” Vose explains. (Jameson, also a light-bodied whiskey, makes for an acceptable substitution.) The amount of whiskey in the drink was also dialed back by a quarter-ounce, which prevented the drink from feeling “too boozy.”

Another DeGroff-led adjustment was a switch from standard demerara syrup to a rich version (“rich” meaning two parts sugar to one part water, instead of a one-to-one ratio) for additional richness and viscosity. As for the coffee, the bar calls on a custom Sumatra blend that’s slightly fruity and medium-bodied—not espresso, cautions Vose, who finds the latter to be “too bitter, too powerful” for the cocktail.

The final step, of course, is that luxurious pour of heavy cream. But that, too, can present a challenge.

“With most Irish Coffees you get that god-awful cream from a can,” Vose says. Instead, Dead Rabbit uses unsweetened, freshly whipped heavy cream, which has a fat content that rings in around 35 percent, allowing it to float on top of the drink. To avoid over- or under-whipping, the bar employs a protein shaker—the kind with a metal ball inside to help agitate the liquid—for easy shaking and pouring. The goal is a consistency thick enough to “pour like glass,” but not so vigorously whipped that it creates peaks. (“We’re not making butter here,” she says.)

The end result: layers of hot, sweetened coffee and cold, unsweetened cream on top. “That contrast of hot-cold, sweet-not-sweet makes it such a magical drink,” says Vose.

While freshly grated nutmeg was originally the go-to garnish (“We’re nutmeg crazy over here,” says Vose) it didn’t pass the DeGroff session. “We agreed it took away from the other ingredients,” she explains. So Dead Rabbit lost the nutmeg garnish, though they’ll still add it upon request.

But that’s where Vose says she draws the line. Her final piece of advice: “Don’t ruin it with pumpkin spice or cinnamon or anything like that.”

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