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What is Irish Coffee?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Irish coffee is a beverage made by mixing hot coffee and whiskey. The drink is traditionally topped with heavy cream, causing it to rather resemble a strong pint of beer. Numerous variations on Irish coffee are served around the world, including Bailey's coffee, made with Bailey's Irish Cream, Scotch coffee made with Scotch, Kentucky coffee made with bourbon, and so forth. The strong coffee paired with a bracing shot of alcohol has a brisk, characteristic flavor which some people find quite enjoyable, especially in the winter.

The origins of Irish coffee appear to lie in Ireland, which should come as no surprise, given the name of the drink. It seems that cold, weary travelers were offered coffee laced with whiskey when they arrived at Shannon Airport in Ireland on a particularly cold, hostile day. When asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, the bartender responded “no, Irish coffee.” Whether or not this myth about the origins of Irish coffee is true, its presence at Shannon Airport appears to be a well documented fact, and most people credit the staff of the airport with its invention.

Irish coffee hopped the pond to the Buena Vista in San Francisco, California, where it became a popular drink on the menu. Some people mistakenly believe that the Buena Vista invented the drink; the business itself makes no such claim, repeating the official Shannon Airport story of events. In any case, many people associate Irish coffee with San Francisco, which does have foggy, gloomy weather and a large Irish population.

To make Irish coffee, whiskey is blended with several spoonfuls of sugar in the bottom of a large glass mug. Hot coffee is poured over the mixture and it is stirred to ensure that the sugar is fully integrated. The sugar makes the mixture more dense, ensuring that the whipped cream floats on top, rather than sinking to the bottom. By tradition, the whipped cream is lightly whipped so that it forms a dense froth, rather than a peaky mound.

As the drinker consumes the Irish coffee, the coffee filters through the cream so that it has a rich flavor and a full texture. The hot coffee tends to be warming, while the alcohol can be invigorating, especially on a cold day. Like all alcoholic drinks, Irish coffee should be consumed in moderation, as the alcohol content can sneak up on the drinker, potentially causing impairment and lapses in judgment.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ShadowGenius — On Mar 01, 2011

The way that this works so well is that it nullifies the effects of the alcohol due to caffeine in the beverage. This is similar to many alcoholic energy drinks which have been outlawed in certain states due to the possible negative effects. When you have caffeine with alcohol, you generally feel perfectly awake and ready to drive, but you should not drive.

By mommadoodles — On Feb 25, 2008

The Irish coffee I make, which I learned from my dad, is made with Irish Mist, a liquor. All you add is the Irish Mist, coffee, and fresh whipped cream. Since the Irish Mist is sweet in its own right, there is no need for adding sugar. Erin Go Bragh!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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