In Search of the Ultimate Irish Coffee

We asked 11 of America’s best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Irish Coffee—and then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.

As if last month’s tasting of 12 Espresso Martinis wasn’t enough, the jittery atmosphere at PUNCH’s Ultimate tasting lab continued this month with a sampling of 11 renditions of that cocktail’s spiritual ancestor, the Irish Coffee.

“It’s my guilty pleasure,” explained Leslie Pariseau, PUNCH’s features editor and avowed Irish Coffee junkie. “It’s supposed to be a day drink, so that’s one part guilty. The idea of a full half-inch of cream, that’s two parts guilty. And I don’t really drink caffeine, so that’s three parts guilty.” Joining Pariseau and myself on the judging panel were bartenders Tim Miner (The Long Island Bar, Rockwell Place) and Jon Mullen (Maison Premiere), both of whom are fans of the drink as well. 

The competing drinks were culled from bars and bartenders from across the nation. However, the line-up was drawn from a narrower field than usual, as the Irish Coffee is not in every bar’s repertoire, simply because many do not serve one of the drink’s four key ingredients: coffee. (The tasting was conducted at Diamond Lil, a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, bar that does serve coffee, and Irish Coffees. Bartender Nathan Venard assisted in building the drinks.)

A few of the bars that do offer the cocktail have made a specialty of it—most notably The Buena Vista Café in San Francisco, whose recipe was included in the tasting. It was there, legend has it, that the drink was introduced to the American public in 1952, imported by San Francisco columnist Stanton Delaplane, who encountered the eye-opener at Shannon Airport in Ireland.

In most bars and restaurants, however, the commonplace drink is given a commonplace treatment, the result rarely rising above spiked coffee. Asked if the drink is difficult to get right, Miner said, “No, but it’s an easy one to do wrong. I think people get lazy with it.”

As with most drinks that are deceptively simple on the surface, determining the best handling of the few components involved was no easy matter, and issues of appearance, temperature and texture—as well as taste—came into play.

“Every ingredient is going to bring something to the party,” said Miner, “and if it doesn’t, why was it invited?”

That the whiskey should be Irish was agreed. (Otherwise, what makes the drink Irish?) The judges also wanted to taste the spirit within the mix, but were unconvinced that a specific brand would make the difference between a good and great drink. Furthermore, only a few of the submitted recipes called for a particular brand of coffee, a circumstance that did not surprise the bartender judges.

“When bartenders are making their drinks” in their bars, noted Mullen, “they only have one coffee option.” (When no brand was specified, PUNCH used New York’s own Champion Coffee.)

The whipped heavy cream that topped each glass mug ranged in flavor from unsweetened to creams laced with sugar and liqueurs. And a fair amount of those creamy layers were crowned by cinnamon, nutmeg or brown sugar—a touch the panel grew fond of as the tasting went on, and missed when it was not present. Pariseau pointed out that the cream can be a medium for aroma, bring an additional sensory aspect to the drink.

More important, visually, than that dusting of spice was the relationship between the cream and the coffee below. “I want to see it in a clear glass,” insisted Mullen. “I want to see that contrast.” Pariseau agreed a firm line between the white and the brown liquids was paramount. “If it looks sloppy, it won’t be good,” she declared.

The polarity in temperature and flavor between the cream and coffee was equally vital to the panel. “It’s hot/cold,” said Mullen, explaining the yin-yang appeal of the drink, “it’s bitter/sweet.” Whenever, upon first sip, a chilly layer of cream gently yielded to a warm bath of coffee, the judges were happy. When an overly abundant measure of coffee led the cream to quickly heat up and melt, they were not.

“If sip one isn’t good,” said Miner, “I don’t care if sip eleven is.”

Two drinks tied for first place in the tasting—one a tested veteran, the other a dark horse. The former was the celebrated Irish Coffee of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn, which is generally regarded to be one of the best in New York. It’s a combination of one and a half ounces of Powers Irish Whiskey, one ounce of 1:1 simple syrup, a shot of espresso lengthened with enough boiling water to nearly fill an 11-ounce mug and a float of thickened cream decorated with grated cinnamon.

The judges found the sweetness level and hot-cold interplay to be on point. All wished for more kick—that is, more whiskey—from the drink, but that didn’t keep the panel from loving the end result.

Coming in even with Fort Defiance was the unheralded work of The Kerryman, a Chicago pub. The make-up of the drink was simple: one and a half ounces Jameson Irish Whiskey, a half-ounce demerara syrup and three ounces of hot coffee, topped with one ounce of heavy whipping cream and grated nutmeg. “All the parts are here,” said Miner. Pariseau agreed: “It does all the things I want it to do.”

Coming in third was Jelani Johnson of Brooklyn’s Clover Club. True to his tiki leanings, Johnson sweetened the cream with Drambuie and Licor 43, lending it a subtly fruity flavor that the judges mistakenly identified as banana. Otherwise, the blueprint was straightforward: two ounces Powers Irish Whiskey, a half-ounce ounce demerara syrup, a hefty five ounces of coffee and a dusting of grated cinnamon atop the cream.

Also showing well was the entry from noted Irish Coffee specialists, The Dead Rabbit, featuring one and a quarter ounces of Clontarf Classic Blend Irish Whiskey, a scant half-ounce of 2:1 demerara syrup and three and one half ounces of coffee, topped with one ounce cream. Dale DeGroff, another notable practitioner of the Irish Coffee, also fared well with his mix of one and a half ounces of Irish whiskey, one ounce of 1:1 simple syrup and four ounces of coffee, finished with unsweetened cream.

Sadly, the famous Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Café was not as lucky. Its combination of two cubes of sugar, four ounces of coffee, one and a half ounces of Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey and unsweetened heavy cream was universally deemed two-dimensional.

“It’s flat and wooden,” said a crestfallen Pariseau. Translation: all guilt, no pleasure.

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