Don’t Fear the Irish Coffee

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The Irish Coffee used to freak me out. Now, granted, this was back in the day when it was nearly impossible to find the answers to just about any bartending questions online. So you kinda had to go with what the guests or the more experienced bartenders told you was correct. And that information was usually incorrect at worst, or contradicting at best.

Who here was told there was Irish Cream in an Irish Coffee, instead of sugar and cream? Yeah, I’m raising my hand. What about grating nutmeg or cinnamon over the top of the drink when you’re finished – that’s another rookie move. I’ve been told all of these. Rough, right?

Well, I’ve spent a lot of time seated at the bar at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco watching, talking to the bartenders, and drinking Irish Coffees from the place that made them world-famous and I can assure you that none of those things are true.

On the other hand, there are bartenders who will tell you it’s complicated and that you need special tools or ingredients if you want to make a world-class Irish Coffee. And after years of refining my recipe, ingredients, and technique, I’m here to tell you that nothing about the perfect Irish Coffee is complicated; in fact it’s super easy.

The Irish Coffee is made of four components:

Irish Whiskey

Of course. Listen, I’ve tried them all and I will give you three options. The Buena Vista uses Tullamore Dew and it’s great. If you want to stop reading now and move on to the next section you’re going to make a great Irish Coffee.

The best Irish Coffee I ever made was with Redbreast 15. I blew through almost an entire bottle of that fairly expensive whiskey making Irish Coffees for myself at home about a decade ago. If you have an extra hundred bucks lying around, go for it. You won’t be sorry.

But my favorite Irish whiskey in an Irish Coffee these days is actually Jameson Black Barrel. It’s super rich, super affordable, and it’s almost like it was made to go in this drink.

Hot Coffee

I have two tips for you. The first one is the one you were expecting: use good coffee. This is no time for crappy coffee. Honestly? You’re better off using cheap Irish whiskey than shitty coffee, trust me. It’s 2021, everyone has access to good coffee that is responsibly sourced and locally roasted.

If you absolutely have to use mass-market coffee then please just avoid the one superconglomerate. You know the one I’m talking about, the one with a coffee shop on every corner. Go with Peet’s or even Dunkin’ Donuts bagged coffee from the grocery store if you must. Just avoid the one I’m not mentioning by name here. Their coffee is garbage.

But the other tip is this: I recommend you brew your coffee a little stronger than usual. At work we always brew ours with a little bit more grounds than recommended by our suppliers at Stumptown. You’re going to be mixing the coffee with whiskey and sugar and cream, so you want to be able to taste it. Just bump up the strength a little, you’ll thank me.


The Buena Vista uses two sugar cubes and the sweetness level is perfect. A sugar cube is one teaspoon of sugar, which is just about exactly one teaspoon of 2:1 simple syrup. I strongly recommend 2:1 simple syrup in place of plain sugar. Don’t use one teaspoon and think it’s going to somehow taste better. And for the love of god do not use three teaspoons (½ ounce) of 2:1 simple syrup. 2 teaspoons. No more, no less.

While you’re thinking about sugar, we use 2:1 brown sugar syrup at the bar in place of white sugar syrup. If you don’t have any brown sugar, no worries, but it really does make a difference between a good Irish Coffee and an elevated Irish Coffee.

Heavy Cream

Do not overthink this last step and do not let anyone bully you into thinking your heavy cream is inadequate. Yes, I have been known to buy fresh cream from a local farm and use that. It’s good. Is it necessary? Nah.

Finding quality cream at the grocery store only takes one simple trick: buy the most expensive one. I’m serious, just get the most spendy one they have, we’re talking about a difference of a dollar or two.

If you have a copy of The Bar Book, follow the Mason Jar Method on page 148 to get your heavy cream to the right consistency to float (none of this floating your cream over the back of a spoon nonsense for us). If you don’t have The Bar Book (why don’t you?) the abridged version is this: fill a small Mason jar halfway with cream, seal, and shake hard for about 15 seconds, or until the cream has increased about 50% in volume. Then you can simply pour the cream over the top of the drink without having to worry about it separating.

That’s it! Happy St. Patrick’s Day, you guys.

Irish Coffee Print Me

  • 1½ oz (45 ml) Irish whiskey
  • 2 tsp (10 ml) 2:1 brown sugar syrup
  • 3 oz (90 ml) hot, strong coffee
  • 1½ oz (45 ml) heavy cream, lightly whipped
  1. Preheat a 6 oz Irish Coffee glass (Libbey model number 8054 if you want to be authentic) with hot water.
  2. Discard water and add whiskey, brown sugar syrup, and coffee to glass.
  3. Float heavy cream on top, and serve.

Recipe printed courtesy of

39 Replies to “Don’t Fear the Irish Coffee”

  • Oscar says:

    The ideal recipe. This ratio also worked with brandy and demerara rum.

    Surely it’s sacrilege but occasionally I like altering the cream. The squeeze bottle makes it such a breeze. For anyone that doesn’t mind being fussy, keep a small clear glass of water to test the cream float before topping.

    One of the best “Irish Coffees” I’ve had was made with good espresso. They extended it with hot water but the concentration of coffee really did wonders. Unfortunately that bar is not closed 🙁

  • Drew says:

    I use a protein shaker for the cream. It’s easier to pour.

  • Dwight says:

    My wife and I were at the Buena Vista a while back, and I did something stupid. I ordered a Margarita. That’s like ordering an Irish coffee at Pedro’s. The drink was made with one of those neon-green mixers and filled a highball glass. I took one sip and left the rest on the table. I think I might have insulted the bartender, and he punished me with that horrible cocktail. My fault.

  • Eoin says:

    Refreshing to see a proper discussion of a proper Irish coffee. I’m sure BV is great but there are a hundred bars here in Ireland that would take umbrage at the notion that they made it famous!
    For what it’s worth, I tend to prefer a rougher whiskey to cut the richness of coffee, sugar & cream so there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’d use a Redbreast. Bushmills or Powers is probably the whiskey that most frequently ends up in an Irish coffee from my shelves.
    I also pour the cream over a spoon (right way up, not the back of a spoon) just to ensure a gentle contact with the coffee & whiskey. It means you can get away with less thickening of the cream.

  • Tammi Grenda says:

    Made this drink the other night and it was delicious.
    Thank you

  • Greg says:

    I love this! I’ve spent much time mesmerized by our friends at the BV making these delicious drinks. Although I tend to annoy hem by asking for one cube (but I am admittedly unusual in my preference for the less sweet.) I use Tullamore Dew to my allegiance to the BV, but must try the Jameson Black. I’ve used Black Bush Bushmill’s in the past in a pinch and it was great too.

    Also in full agreement in the disdain for the Not-So Jolly Green Giant which will remain unnamed. Peet’s it is.

  • Ruth says:

    You are so spot on. Totally agree with the yuk coffee you don’t mention. I actually have the glass on the cover photo (the one with the little cow). That is what I go by but will compare your method. I use Bushmills because my Irish friend, that gave me the glasses, told me to use it. Willing to try Jaimison next time. Thanks!

  • JCSinSATX says:

    Thanks for the great tips! Would it be sacrilegious to use bourbon or rye?

    And now I am trying to find the glass at the top of the page which is adorable!

  • Rick says:

    So, no sweetening the heavy cream, eh? OK. Gonna try this. Reading your post made me hungry. Er, thirsty.

  • Charlotte says:

    Great reading! I like to pull a lungo of Peet’s espresso for the coffee, but sugar in anything coffee is anathema to me. I’m going to take a chance on simple syrup tonight—sláinte!

  • Mary DeBattista says:

    Nodding in agreement with all of your points! Such a simple drink in theory that is so often maligned in practice.

    Milwaukee has a number of legit Irish bars, but a few years back I visited one on a frigid night and managed to get a seat at the bar top. Ordered an Irish coffee. I’ve never been the kind of bartender to tell another how to do things. But when the lad said “sure thing!” and reached for the Bailey’s, my eyes grew large, I squeaked and shaked my head in horror. I find Irish cream to be abominable and would rather set my hair on fire than ingest it. It stopped him in his tracks and we negotiated the sole use of Irish whiskey instead of any sort of Irish cream. By that time I had figured that he was going to squirt whipped-something from a can, anyway, and I had resigned myself.

    I didn’t die or anything. But oy.

  • razumny says:

    I love a good Irish Coffee, and your breakdown of the myths and misconceptions is certainly welcome.

    I usually take the spring from my hawthorne strainers and add to my shaker when shaking cream for these applications.

  • Celestino S. says:

    Good read! I remember my fun”extensive study” 2½ years ago, when for an article I wrote I had 25 Irish coffees (during a 9 month period) in my city’s downtown bars and well, you pretty much 100% wrote the same stuff I did then!

    A lot of people fail on the sugar level and/or use way big of a glass AND forget to preheat it.

    IMHO this drink is essentially something people just. Need. To. Know how to make, an all-year-round cocktail. Except for maybe Hawaii. Or the Bahamas.

  • Robi says:

    I’m not a big coffee drinker but I adore a well made Irish Coffee! Great breakdown of the recipe, but I gotta say a little nutmeg on top, grated in the middle of the foam, gives it a little extra magic. Extra step? Yes, but totally worth it. Cheers, Jeffrey!

  • David Nardolillo says:

    Irish Coffee was a lifesaver for the late fall–and now early spring– socially-distanced outdoor cocktail hours with friends. Thank you for emphasizing the need to use good coffee. It is really the constant; you can always play with the proportions of whiskey and sweetener, but bad coffee is hard to compensate for. Using good coffee makers also lets you get away with using decaf if your guests are sensitive to caffeine. It is also interesting to see how the proportions of whiskey and sweetner seem to be constantly tweaked to taste: The bar I learned the drink from has at least three different proportions published between its recipe book, website, and magazine articles! Whiskey-wise, I’ve had good luck with basic Bushmills, which is very versatile in my pared-down home bar. I also like 1:1 demerara syrup. For the cream, an unused protein shake bottle enjoys new life and a prime perch in the cabinet as the designated Irish Coffee cream whipper. Cheers to you, Jeff and I hope 2021 is a great year for you, family, and team.

  • Captain Brilliant says:

    I’ll definitely give this a go

  • Jon says:

    This was the one drink I had to make at the bar where I always thought, “Am I making this right?” Almost all of the time they did love it. Thanks for breaking it down to the basics. Jameson Black Barrel is one of my go-to Irish whiskeys. Such a great bold flavor. Sláinte friend!

  • Liz says:

    This was a delight to read. I appreciate your strong opinions and humor around each component of the drink!
    I had my first Irish Coffee at the Red Fox Inn in Ireland 10 years ago.
    My husband takes issue with the idea of mixing Redbreast 15 with anything, but he concedes that it would be delicious! Alas, we only have Writers Tears and Bushmills in the pantry and will have to make do.

    We’re looking forward to making this!

  • Georgeann Brown says:

    So how many run/walk miles to offset this wonderful recipe? And thanks for all the tips.

  • I loathe coffee, but my wife absolutely loves it. I think it might be “grounds” for divorce. Boom. But for real, she is so particular about her coffee that she’s only ever had an Irish Coffee from the Buena Vista. Perhaps I’ll have to make her one tomorrow.

  • Denise says:

    Ahh, was just talking about Buena Vista Irish coffees the other day (PDX transplant from SF). Adding heavy cream to my next shopping list! (And we’ve got 2:1 demerara simple for sazeracs but I’m excited to try brown sugar simple!)

  • Mary Anne says:

    I adore a Irish Coffee and look forward to my first one this year.

  • janet miller says:

    This sounds absolutely perfect. Thank you.

  • Moritz says:

    I like to use squeeze bottles for the cream. You can whip it easily and pour it clean and convenient.
    Just do not overwhip it, as it is a pain in the a.. to clean them after.

  • Michael Herbert says:

    If you don’t mind my mentioning, I’ve had great success getting the cream to the right consistency for just one Irish Coffee by using a small battery-powered milk frother with the cream sitting in an Oxo 2 oz measuring cup for about 20-30 seconds.

    I’m looking forward to trying your whiskey suggestions (Jameson Black Barrel is more likely than Redbreast 15, alas) and making my coffee slightly stronger in my St. Paddy’s Irish Coffees this year!

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