Marilyn Monroe and her husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, being served Irish Coffees at Shannon Airport in 1956.

Irish Coffee's fabled origins

Perhaps no place in the world sells more Irish Coffees than the Buena Vista Bar in San Francisco, California, which serves around 2,000 on any weekday and up to 2,500 on a busy weekend day. The Buena Vista has a long and fabled relationship to the famous drink. On a dark and stormy night in 1952, the Buena Vista’s owner at the time, Jack Koeppler, was working behind the bar.  Sitting  across from him at the bar was the popular San Francisco Chronicle travel writer  Stanton Delaplane, who had written about an amazing  whiskey drink he'd tasted in  County Limerick, Ireland: Gaelic coffee. 

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 That night at the Buena Vista, the two men repeatedly tried to recreate  the mix of whiskey, cream, and coffee, but every attempt failed. The two San Franciscans tried different glasses,  different whiskeys, and everything they could think of, but without success. Throughout the night the two of them stirred and sipped judiciously, but eventually admitted two intractable problems: the taste was not quite right, and the cream would not float. Their hopes of recreating the drink sank just like the cream in their failed attempts.

 Koeppler, however, was no quitter. He  became so obsessed with recreating Irish coffee that he flew back to the Limerick’s Foynes Flying Boat Terminal in search of the recipe.  The terminal had become one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe during World War ll, and after the war, it became a hub for transatlantic flights  often carrying important elected leaders or Hollywood stars. The airbase was usually just a stopover for longer flights to refuel and often due to bad weather passengers stayed the night and ate  a new restaurant created to cater to these VIP passengers.

 The honor of inventing the legendary drink belongs to Foynes Chef Joe Sheridan who was born in 1909 in Castlederg, Co. Tyrone. He was one of six sons from a family that moved to Dublin after the death of their father, and in the big city he found work in a restaurant. In 1943, he applied for the job of chef at the airport to manager Brendan O’Regan, stating bluntly, “Dear Sir, I’m the man for the job. Yours sincerely, Joe Sheridan.” O’Regan later said that it was the impudence of Sheridan’s application that made him decide to interview Sheridan and the Tyrone man was soon hired. 

    Sheridan invented Irish Coffee on another dark and stormy night in 1943. A Pan Am flight headed to New York was forced to turn back due to bad weather and a group of tired, cold and discouraged passengers deplaned. Chef  Sheridan, sympathizing with  the weary passengers, decided to create something special for them to drink. According to the legend,  a silence descended  over the bar as everyone marveled at  this delicious concoction. One of the passengers asked ,"Hey Buddy, "is this Brazilian coffee?" "No," said Joe, "that's Irish Coffee." And so it’s remained, with the occasional variation, like “Gaelic coffee,” being used, as we’ve seen.

 Irish Coffee became a huge success and an airport specialty. Koeppler went to Ireland in 1953 looking for help making his own authentic version to bring to the Buena Vista. Sheridan shared the recipe with him, but one problem remained when Koeppler returned to California: the cream still sank. A solution was found by San Francisco’s mayor who was also a prominent dairy owner. The mayor  discovered that when the cream was aged for 48 hours and frothed to a precise consistency, it would float. Eureka! The drink became an even bigger hit and according to some, Sheridan himself turned up at the Buena Vista to work serving it. 

 Others challenge the Buena Vista creation story. Eric Felten, author of "How's Your Drink?" and a  former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, is one. “It was invented in 1940 or so at a pub called the Dolphin in Dublin," claimed  Felten. The other inconsistency in the Buena Vista version, though, is that Delaplane isn't the only traveler who brought it back to the U.S. There's historical evidence that Irish Coffee made its appearance in New York four years prior to that legendary night at the Buena Vista. "The first instance I can find of the Irish coffee coming to the U.S. is the food critic for the New York Herald Tribune, named Clementine Paddleford. For her St. Patrick’s Day column in 1948, she talks up the Irish coffee and she even gives the recipe. It’s clearly the Irish coffee we know," said Felten.  

 Felten, however, does agree that it wasn't in New York that the drink really gained popularity or caught on. "It is the case that it's in San Francisco that the Irish Coffee really became a sensation," he said, "thanks to Stanton Delaplane.”

 Regardless of the controversy over its origins, customers still flock to the Buena Vista for Irish Coffee and this author, doing his due diligence in researching the article, was highly  impressed by the great taste of Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee.