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Pour un bon Irish coffee |  © Simon Bonaventure/Flickr
Pour un bon Irish coffee | © Simon Bonaventure/Flickr
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Everything You Need To Know About Irish Coffee In San Francisco

Picture of Madelyn Andree
Updated: 9 February 2017
San Francisco is home to several iconic dishes, ranging from sourdough bread to Dungeness crab. The Buena Vista Cafe, nestled on a nondescript corner of Russian Hill, is home to yet another San Franciscan staple: Irish coffee. Take a peek at the quaint cafe’s rich history and Irish coffee’s local story of origin below.

The origin is in the name.

Irish coffee was actually first concocted in Foynes, Ireland. The main airbase for Flying Boats traveling between America and Europe during WWII was located in Foynes and still stands as Shannon Airport. In 1942, a man named Brendan O’Regan opened a restaurant and coffee shop in the terminal building specifically for passengers, which later included American VIPs. The cozy refuge eventually became the birthplace of Irish coffee.

Short Sunderland Mk V | © WikiCommons

The turbulent Irish weather played a role in the drink’s development.

One evening in 1943, a flight leaving Foynes faced a particularly rough storm and was forced to return to the terminal. The cafe’s chef, Joe Sheridan, mixed a special, warm drink for the weary group of travelers. His invention, consisting of dark coffee, Irish Whiskey, brown sugar, and whipped cream, was the first Irish coffee. It became so popular that Sheridan and O’Regan made it a regular menu item.

Shannon airport building | © Wolf32at/WikiCommons

Before 1952, Irish coffee did not exist in America.

Irish coffee’s journey to America began a decade later, in 1952. Jack Koeppler, then-owner of the Buena Vista Cafe, and Stanton Delaplane, travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, attempted to replicate the drink. Delaplane had tasted Irish coffee at the Shannon Airport and was immediately smitten.

Buena Vista Café | © david.dames/Flickr

It took many trials to replicate the original Irish coffee.

Koeppler and Delaplane worked tirelessly to produce their version of Irish coffee. Koeppler even ventured to Shannon Airport a second time to taste the original drink before he was able to help perfect it. On one particular evening, Delaplane was so determined that he supposedly sampled his own failed attempts until he nearly passed out on some cable car tracks.

Preparing an Irish Coffee | © Frettie/WikiCommons

Re-creating Irish coffee in America was a wholly San Franciscan effort.

Koeppler and Delaplane’s biggest challenge was keeping the whipped cream afloat. They sought help from the mayor, George Christopher, who was a dairy owner. Christopher suggested aging the cream at least 48 hours before frothing it. His technique worked, and the men were finally able to serve the first Irish coffee in the United States at the Buena Vista Cafe.

Whipping Cream | © Ryan Hyde/Flickr

The technique behind making each beverage is precise.

Though the bartenders at the Buena Vista use sugar cubes rather than the brown sugar called for in Stanton’s recipe, they have mastered a similar process. First, they preheat each goblet by pouring hot water. They then empty each goblet before adding freshly brewed coffee. Two sugar cubes are then dissolved in each before the Irish whiskey is added. Lastly, bartenders top off each drink with carefully placed whipped cream, which is poured over a spoon.

Classic Bartender with Irish Coffee | © Albert Maruggi/Flickr
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Buena Vista used to include exclusively distilled whiskey.

The Buena Vista’s Irish coffee was so instrumental to the beverages global success that the cafe had select whiskey distilled for a short time in Midleton. Now, their whiskey of choice is Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey.

The original recipe is still used at the Buena Vista.

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Irish Coffee
Irish Coffee | © summer park/Flickr

The original recipe is still used at the Buena Vista.

The Buena Vista’s Irish coffee recipe remains unchanged. The interior of the bar, since it was rebuilt after the massive earthquake in 1906, is also original. The Buena Vista has earned such a reputation that bartenders expertly craft up to 2,000 Irish coffees each day!

Buena Vista Café, 2765 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA, USA, +1

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