How to make the best Irish coffee according to Irish bartenders

Everyone chooses to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the way they deem best, be it chasing off real snakes to honor the Saint’s metaphorical ones, pinching party poopers who have neglected to wear green, or hiding indoors to avoid the former two types of revelers. But one St. Paddy’s Day activity upon which many people seem to agree is the time-honored practice of drinking heavily.

Of all the Emerald Isle’s most famous homegrown beverages, Irish coffee may be the most well-equipped to handle St. Patrick’s Day: not only does it get that first bit of celebratory whiskey down, it’s accompanied by the caffeine needed to make it through the rest of the day. Plus it’s delicious, making it accessible to those who aren’t trying to shoot straight whiskey or chug a Guinness.

But this isn’t a competition, it’s a celebration! And if we want to celebrate properly, then it’s imperative to get our drinks right. Who better to teach us the art of crafting Irish cocktails than actual Irish bartenders?

“We’ve worked a lot on perfecting our Irish coffee,” says Belfast native Jack McGarry, bartender and managing partner of The Dead Rabbit in New York. It’s the bar’s signature drink, of which they sell between 400 and 700 every week.

Despite the time he’s invested in crafting this cocktail, McGarry assures that creating an Irish coffee is not as much of a challenge as it seems. “It’s all about balance, and using the right ingredients – the right whiskey, coffee, sugar and cream. They all need to work together.”

Irish coffee is an ideal drink for St. Patrick's DayIrish coffee is an ideal drink for St. Patrick’s Day — Photo courtesy of iStock / Ekaterina Molchanova

Of course, the intricacies that constitute cocktail balance are a matter of personal opinion, but McGarry’s partner, Sean Muldoon (also of Belfast), advises that “Irish coffee shouldn’t be heavy or overbearing,” which is a good starting point for the uninitiated.

Irish coffees served at The Dead Rabbit use Bushmills as their preferred whiskey because they “use malt barley to handcraft triple-distilled whiskey in small batches, which creates a unique combination of smoothness and richness,” Muldoon says. Whiskey with a high grain content lightens Irish coffee, keeping it from becoming a cocktail that takes excessive time to drink.

But whiskey isn’t the only ingredient that requires special attention. “Every aspect of the drink can be messed up,” warns Muldoon. Using a whiskey that overpowers the other more subtle ingredients is an obvious mistake to avoid, but he also advises against foregoing syrup in favor of sugar cubes. Then there’s using an “oversized glass, or burnt and over-strong coffee, not using fresh whipped cream…”

The Dead Rabbit

Bushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the worldBushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world — Photo courtesy of The Dead Rabbit

With so many ways to go wrong, it pays to follow in the footsteps of those who know what they’re doing. To recreate The Dead Rabbit’s famous Irish coffee, just follow these simple instructions:

  • 1 oz Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey
  • ¾ oz Rich Demerara Syrup
  • 3 ¼ oz Sumatra coffee
  • Heavy cream

Pour first three ingredients into a 6 oz Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee glass leaving a half-inch space for cream. Top with freshly whipped heavy cream.

“The size of the glass is a huge reason why a lot of people get it wrong,” adds The Dead Rabbit’s beverage director, Jillian Vose (who isn’t Irish, but is full of great wisdom). So in lieu of having a glass from this particular bar, stick with anything in the 6 oz category.

Tullamore D.E.W.

Tullamore D.E.W. makes an iced version of the classicTullamore D.E.W. makes an iced version of the classic — Photo courtesy of Tullamore D.E.W.

Tullamore D.E.W.‘s U.S. Ambassador, Tim Herlihy of Clogherhead’s biggest (and only) egg farm, takes a decidedly poetic approach to selecting the right ingredients. “Cream – rich as an Irish brogue. Coffee – strong as a friendly hand. Whiskey – smooth as the wit of the land.” He may not be James Joyce, but it’s only because what he has to say and how he says it isn’t incredibly depressing.

Herlihy’s personal take on the Irish coffee goes the iced route, which is a nice diversion from the typical hot variant, especially for those celebrating Ireland’s national day in warmer climates. This is how he makes it happen:

  • 2 parts Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey
  • 1 teaspoon ground espresso
  • 2 teaspoons demerara sugar
  • 3 parts cold brew coffee
  • Fresh cream

Combine whiskey and espresso in a small bowl; let stand 15 minutes. Strain whiskey through a coffee filter into a cocktail shaker. Meanwhile, stir sugar and 2 tsp. hot water in a small bowl until sugar is dissolved. Add demerara syrup and cold brew to cocktail shaker; fill with ice. Shake until outside of shaker is frosty, about 30 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice and top with cream.

Proper No. Twelve

Nutmeg makes this Proper No. Twelve recipe extra deliciousNutmeg makes this Proper No. Twelve recipe extra delicious — Photo courtesy of Proper No. Twelve

Back on the warm side of things, MMA fighter-turned-distiller Conor McGregor of Crumlin, a suburb of Dublin, gets nostalgic (yet informative) when discussing this classic beverage. “In Ireland, when it’s lashing rain and cold, we enjoy an Irish coffee with Irish cream that is shaken until it thickens.”

His preferred whiskey is, of course, his own Proper No. Twelve, which he spent three years creating (and ultimately named after the neighborhood in which he was raised). “It’s a delicious blend of golden grain and single malt produced in an area in Ireland known for its rich soil and pure spring water.”

Sweetness is emphasized in McGregor’s version, with “hints of vanilla and honey-like flavour” contributed by the whiskey. And although it’s optional, he suggests adding “a touch of nutmeg to the top.” We may never be able to emulate his fighting style, but recreating his Irish coffee is a cinch:

  • 2 oz Proper No. Twelve Whiskey
  • 4 oz hot coffee
  • .75 oz simple syrup
  • 2-3 oz heavy cream

In a shaker or jar, shake or whip heavy cream until slightly thickened (not completely stiff). In a mug, add Proper No. Twelve Whiskey, hot coffee and simple syrup, then stir. Carefully layer on top the thickened heavy cream until it covers the drink. Optional grating of nutmeg on top.

Whichever route you choose to take your Irish coffee on St. Patrick’s Day, remember to have fun and drink responsibly.

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