There are great bars and there are great cocktails, and there are of course great barmen who provide their guests with great service, beverages and conversation. But once and awhile, a certain bartender will create a certain drink which transcends the typical and becomes more than a drink. It becomes a classic, a destination and an indelible drinking experience which only one bar can call its own. These posts are an attempt to capture these signature drinks and bars in which they can be called, The Usual.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Buena Vista and the Irish Coffee

The story of the Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista is a well documented one and from what can be seen, a straightforward one without too many myths, legends or tall tales attached to it. As stated in the many readily available press material from the Buena Vista, “The historic venture started on the night of November the 10th in 1952. Jack Koeppler, then-owner of the Buena Vista, challenged international travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help re-create a highly touted "Irish Coffee" served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Intrigued, Stan Accepted Jack’s invitation, and the pair began to experiment immediately.”
If and how the Irish Coffee did get a start at the Shannon Airport is unclear, however. Yet it was already a legendary drink which Koeppler wanted to provide for his guests at The Buena Vista. Now if you have never had a proper Irish Coffee, you may be asking yourself what’s the big deal about some coffee spiked with Iriish Whiskey and Bailey’s, topped with a mound of wavy whipped cream from a can and drizzled with green crème de menthe. Well, there isn’t anything special about that drink unless you’re my grandmother. But once you have had a properly built Irish Coffee and sipped the strong spiked coffee through the thick cool layer of floating cream, you will understand why it is such an alluring drink and why it is difficult for many people to execute properly.
A proper Irish Coffee should be a blend of black coffee sweetened with at least a teaspoon of sugar and then spiked with a healthy amount of quality Irish Whiskey. The cream should be heavy cream which has been whipped to thickness but not to a point where peaks form and it should be thin enough that it still pours over the back of a spoon. All is served in a preheated small wine glass. The affect is that the drinker has a rich and warming glass of coffee that is balanced by drinking it through the cool, unsweetened, layer of cream.
Koeppler and Delaplane had great trouble with getting their cream to float properly and sought out many avenues to solving their problem including traveling to the Shannon Airport. The answer came eventually from the then mayor of San Francisco who was also a dairy farmer. It was determined that the fresh cream needed to rest for 48 hours to develop the proper composition to allow it to be frothed to the point where it could float.
Ordering an Irish Coffee often brings about a deer in the headlights look from many a bartender, but at the Buena Vista it is a proud tradition but I would guess that the bartenders there sometimes get a bit tired of preparing literally hundreds of these a day for both tourists and locals a like. Yet a trip to the Buena Vista is a must while in San Francisco and a must for anyone who wants an eye opening experience with their Buena Vista. Upon entering you will see the bar lined with dozens of signature cups with wisps of steam floating upwards as they are heated in preparation for the rush of cold and thirsty customers waking in from Ghirardelli Square.
On the surface the Irish coffee is a simple drink, but it is these simple drinks (like the margarita and daiquiri) which have been mangled and misunderstood by bartenders and which have in-turn turned off customers from their beauty. However, as simple as it is, there are some key steps needed:
  • Use a small wine glass which has been pre-headed with hot water
  • Use a quality Irish Whiskey (the Buena Vista swears by Tullamore Dew, as do I)
  • Use a strong, quality coffee
  • Use 1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar, the cream will not float without it.
  • Whip the cream until it thickens and the surface looks smooth but not to the point where peaks form. I have found this time varies from 1 to 2 min depending on the cream. (It is no longer necessary to leave commercially produced creams to rest for 48 hours.
  1. Fill a small wine glass with warm water
  2. In a metal bowl whip the heavy cream with a whisky until thickened and bubbles begin to dissipate and the surface looks smooth but not to the point where peaks form. Transfer to a smaller pitcher if preferred.
  3. Empty water and add 2 teaspoons of sugar (I prefer turbanado or “sugar in the raw”) along with about 4 oz Black Coffee, Stir to dissolve sugar
  4. Add 1.5 oz Irish Whiskey (Tullamore Dew) and stir
  5. Give the cream a few more good whips and then pour over the back of a spoon held just over the surface of the coffee. Pour until there is a good 1/2” “collar” of cream above the coffee.

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