Tom Doorley: Irish coffee
I recently asked a handful of restaurateurs how often they serve Irish coffee and they all said the same thing: two or three times a year, generally to older people, usually Americans.
It seems a shame. I mean, Irish coffee is one of our very few contributions to international gastronomy.
When you think about it, Irish coffee makes complete sense. It's a stimulant but it's also a sedative. It combines the attractively bitter, slightly burnt taste of coffee with the rich warmth of whiskey. And this hot and potent combination is sipped through a layer of chilled cream. Could it possibly be better? I don't think so.
Its heyday was the 1960s and 1970s and many households still have, somewhere, the rather naff printed glasses that were produced in those days, with instructions on the side as to how to create what was then the new classic.
Back in those innocent days, a celebratory meal in a restaurant was not complete without an Irish coffee. And despite its potency, rather in the same way as sweet sherry, even virtually teetotal elderly ladies would throw caution to the winds and have one. The whiskey, if you like, had the harm taken out of it by being paired with coffee and cream. And if it wasn't quite in the same category as lethally boozy trifle, sure it was almost a food.
There are arguments about its origins but one thing is certain: the affinity between hard liquor and coffee was recognised way before the generally agreed date for the invention of Irish coffee, the middle of the last century. To take just one example, the Brazilians have long enjoyed adding cachaca, the booze that goes into their lovely limey caipirinhas, to coffee in various forms. Chilled, milky coffee fortified with this fiery spirit is a favourite example.
When Joe Jackson, a merchant seaman, was rescued off the coat of Newfoundland during World War II, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should be given hot coffee with a shot of rum in it to coax the feeling back into his frozen limbs. And it may well be that this experience prompted him to serve a combination of coffee and Irish whiskey when he started in the hotel business in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, in 1948.
However, the generally accepted story of the origin of Irish coffee as we know it today is that the inventor was one Joe Sheridan, a chef at Foynes where the transatlantic flying boats used to land and take off.
It is said that a group of weary and cold passengers, whose aircraft was forced to turn back to Ireland after several hours in the air, were greatly cheered up when Mr Sheridan, a trained chef, served them strong Bewley's coffee, fortified with a good dash of Paddy Whiskey, not in cups but in glasses. And here was the twist. Floating on top of this hot and warming ebony liquid was a layer of the purest white: rich, cool Irish cream. It may well have been Mr Sheridan's training as a chef that inspired him to float the cream; he would not have thought of this as thermodynamics but in those days chefs tended to know a thing or two about the science of cooking.
That was in 1952 and, legend has it, that he was asked by a delighted passenger if this was Brazilian coffee. The chef had not even had time to christen the drink so he replied, bluntly, "No. It's Irish coffee."
And that, if we can believe it, is how Irish coffee was invented and named. As for myself, I reckon there is a lot of truth in it but being an Irish story we can't exclude the possibility of embellishment over the years. It’s time for a renaissance and, you never know, it might lead to a much needed improvement in the general standard of coffee in Ireland.
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