Though bartenders have found countless ways to tinker with the classic Irish Coffee formula over the years, the drink’s crowning glory—the cream on top—has been paid particular attention within the past few years. Intent on making that first creamy sip count, many add extra oomph by mixing in liqueurs, syrups or bitters.
For Clover Club’s Jelani Johnson, whose Irish Coffee recipe took third place in a recent PUNCH taste test, inspiration came from making ice cream flavored with booze. “Ice cream is really just flavored cream,” he explains, translating the concept to the cream collar atop his variation, which he serves both hot and iced.
Reluctant to stray too far from the classic whiskey-coffee template, he found the topper to be the most logical place to improvise. “I thought the cream would be a good place to add some pizzazz,” he says. Johnson stirred in small amounts of Drambuie and Licor 43 to the cream; the first added honeyed sweetness, the second vanilla and spice. It was a home run on the first try.
Meanwhile, at Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, bar director William Elliott opted to experiment with flavored cream for his otherwise “simple and straightforward” take on the Irish Coffee after sampling a White Russian variation at the late Milk & Honey around 2009. While the standard version mixes vodka, cream and coffee liqueur, M&H layered cream on top of the drink as opposed to shaking it all together. “It was their way of making a corny drink a little more of the moment, of the cocktail zeitgeist,” he remembers.
Elliott’s Irish Coffee adaptation doubles down on the central flavor by layering espresso liqueur–flavored cream over French press coffee that’s been enlivened with whiskey, demerara syrup and Angostura bitters, adding subtle sweetness and spice.
While it’s a forgiving ingredient with which to experiment, Johnson recommends a bold-flavored counterpoint, particularly one with a bit of sweetness, when flavoring cream: “It is such a muting element, you need something robust enough to stand up to heavy cream,” he explains. Most often, this takes the form of a liqueur or amaro, as in the Italian Irish Coffee served at Chicago restaurant Coda di Volpe. There, bartender Jerrell Reynolds tops his warm mixture of bourbon, chocolate liqueur and Amaro Averna with a Fernet Branca Menta–laced “mint cream” for what drinks like a liquid Thin Mint.
Of course, it’s not only hot drinks that benefit from a flavored cream topper. Elliott has experimented with a number of drinks, from the Albatross, a rhum agricole and grapefruit drink topped with “Galliano cream,” to the fruity Inverness, made with a base of absinthe and Drambuie filled out with lemon cordial and blueberry jam, capped with blush-pink “cassis cream.” He favors additions that add color as well as flavor and aroma, leading him to experiment with amaro, Angostura bitters and even oyster stout. It doesn’t even have to be boozy—grenadine or spiced syrups are effective additions, too. “It’s visual,” notes Elliott, and can give a “slightly culinary vibe” to a drink.
The ratio of cream to sweetener is important to its success, though Johnson notes it’s relatively flexible, depending on the intensity of flavor in the liqueur or syrup used. In general, Johnson suggests a 6:1 cream-to-liqueur ratio, although that can go as low as 3:1. Any lower and the cream won’t stiffen to the consistency needed to float atop the drink: “You want to keep the fat content of the cream intact,” he explains. For this reason, full-proof spirits, which have little sugar content, are best avoided. Beyond that, says Johnson, “the possibilities are really endless.”