Originally published March 18, 2012.
Cream, rich as an Irish brogue;
Coffee, strong as a friendly hand;
Sugar, sweet as the tongue of a rogue;
Whiskey, smooth as the wit of the land.
-a traditional toast accompanying Irish coffee
The Irish coffee typically served in restaurants here either has cream stirred into the drink, or whipped cream floating on top. The traditional way to enjoy the drink is to gently pour heavy cream onto the surface of the coffee so that it floats, then sip the coffee through the cream.
Let’s discuss ingredients.
The Coffee – Use good coffee. Brew it strong.
The Sugar – Irish coffee is made with brown sugar which has a distinct, cooked, molasses-like taste. I use demerara, which is a very dark brown sugar.
The Whiskey – You can make a fine Irish coffee with Jameson or Bushmills, but for a superlative cocktail I suggest Redbreast. It’s aged in oak barrels and therefore has more of the toasty vanilla and caramel notes that pair well with brown sugar. I know many will cringe at the idea of pouring such a fine whiskey into coffee and sugar. In fact there’s an old joke that Irish coffee simultaneously ruins three great drinks: coffee, whiskey, and cream. The way I see it: how often do you make Irish coffee at home? Maybe twice a year. Use the good whiskey.
Sidenote: In Scotland and Canada they make “whisky.” In Ireland and America they make “whiskey.” I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.
The Cream – What we call heavy cream is usually around 33% milk fat. I find it very difficult to float this cream on the coffee and maintain a clean separation between the two liquids. I prefer to use a higher fat cream, closer to 50% milk fat, something the British would call double cream.
Vital Green Farms is an independent dairy producer in Picture Butte, AB. You can buy their milk at Planet Organic. The Vital Green whole milk is some of the best milk I’ve ever tasted. They also sell an organic heavy cream that is 52% milk fat. Heavy cream is one of the few exceptions to the kitchen adage “fat is flavour.” If you sampled a range of dairy products, from skim milk, through 1%, 2%, whole milk, coffee cream, and heavy cream, you’ll find that while whole milk is much more flavourful than skim, heavy cream has very little flavour. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is. Perhaps the fat in the cream somehow obscures the flavour of the lactose. Despite its muted flavour, Vital Green heavy cream has the fat content we need to properly float our dairy.
Sidenote: people often refer to whole milk (3-4% milk fat) as “homo milk.” In dairyspeak “homo” is short for “homogenized,” which means the milk has been processed to prevent the separation of fatty bits from watery bits. All commercially-produced milk is homogenized, not just whole milk. The next time someone asks you to pick up some homo milk, you should clarify this with them.
These sidenotes are ruining what should be a nice, succinct post. Sorry.
Notes on Floating Cream – Fill the glass with the coffee, sugar, and whiskey mixture to within 1/2″ of the top of the glass. Filling the glass very full will allow you to keep a spoon close to level as you add the cream.
Touch the tip of a large spoon filled with cream to the inside of the glass, just above the coffee. Gently (gently!) tip the spoon so that the cream slides down the side of the glass and onto the surface of the coffee. If the cream mixes with the coffee, you have ruined St. Patrick’s Day.
Since you’re going through the effort of floating cream, Irish coffee should be served in a glass, not a ceramic mug. If you’re a sucker for tableside theatrics, as I am, bring the glasses to the table filled with the black coffee, sugar, and whiskey, then spoon the heavy cream on top in front of your guests.
A complete recipe, if you’re interested:
Irish Coffee (for four)
- 14 fl oz. strong, quality coffee
- 3 1/2 tbsp demerara sugar, packed
- 4 fl. oz. Redbreast Irish Whiskey
- 3 fl. oz. heavy cream (52% milk fat)
- Add the sugar and whiskey to the hot coffee. Stir briefly to dissolve the sugar.
- Divide the coffee mixture into four glasses, ensuring the liquid comes to within 1/2″ of the top of each glass.
- Float a portion of heavy cream in each glass (see Notes of Floating Cream, above).
- Consume immediately, sipping the coffee through the cream.
A friend experimented with dunking oatmeal poundcake into his Irish coffee. Initial impressions were favourable, but more rigorous study is required.