Consider The Irish: Irish Coffee In America

The Irish are a culture unto themselves. They believe in leprechauns, love the color green, are fiercely independent (some might say stubborn), and wear funky-looking sweaters. And oh yeah, they like to drink Irish Whisky. Which brings up a question of paramount importance: Who served the first Irish Coffee in California?

If you’re in California, and if you’re driving up to Yosemite National Park or up to Sonora, which, by the way, has a really retro-cemetery, you pretty much have to pass through a small town with the unremarkable name of Oakdale. When you do, you’ll see a very remarkable sign standing on the outskirts of Oakdale. The sign is noteworthy because it reads “Cowboy Capital of the World.”

There’s a certain cringe-factor to those words. Because, well, let’s see, the whole state of Texas might consider them fightin’ words. Or — just maybe — Wyoming, which bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World. Then there’s also Montana, which has a lot of cowboys, who are very proud of their bronco-busting heritage. And what about New Mexico? They might claim a certain distinction too.

Remember those movies that Christopher Lambert — he of the Gallic good-looks — made famous? The Outlander series, in which the constant refrain is, “There can be only one.”

That’s what we’re talking about. Only in this case, not about cowboys or some Scottish dude achieving some sort of quasi-immortality. What we’re talking about here is Irish Coffee. And who first served it in America, because “there can be only one.”

The story of who first served Irish Coffee in America started in County Limerick, Ireland, where Joseph Sheridan, who was the head chef at a place called Foynes, invented the drink known as Irish Coffee.[1] Foynes was not only a restaurant and bar it also doubled as the airport at the time. Later, Foynes would become Shannon International Airport.

It was 1940-something and a bunch of passengers got off one of those flying boats called “airplanes.” Since it was winter and since it was Ireland, it was like walking into the middle of Siberia — wet, dark and cold. Displaying copious amounts of good sense, the passengers ran to the nearest bar, which, of course, was Foynes. Once inside the establishment, they demanded something hot to drink. They didn’t care what it was, but it had to be hot.

Sheridan, being both sensible and Irish, poured cups of hot coffee, lacing each cup with a healthy splash of Irish whiskey. To make it palatable, he added sugar and cream. The passengers, approving of the taste, wanted to know what kind of coffee they had just been served.

“Is it Brazilian?” they asked. Brazilian coffee was being touted as the next-next thing in the newspapers and magazines of the day. Supposedly, there was a certain wood-alcohol taste to Brazilian coffee.

“No,” replied Sheridan. “It’s Irish coffee.”

That was the beginning of Ireland’s second most-popular drink. Which, by the way, contained a shot of Ireland’s number one rated drink.

Now this is where things get a little iffy, and we have to do some historical sifting.

A few years later (around 1952), a guy named Stanton Delaplane sat at what was then called Shannon Airport (it wasn’t international yet), waiting for his plane. Feeling a little parched, Delaplane decided to order something new and different to drink. He was a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and trying new things was what he was paid to do. So he did. He ordered an Irish Coffee.

Delaplane loved it. He loved it so much that when he got back to San Francisco, he went immediately to the Buena Vista Café, which was his favorite eating and drinking spot. The Buena Vista was owned by Jack Koeppler and George Freeberg. Delaplane told the two barmen about an amazing drink he had had only hours before. It was called an Irish Coffee.

Koeppler asked what was in it.

Delaplane answered, “Irish whiskey, sugar, and cream, which floats like a lily on top. And coffee, of course.”

One by one, Koeppler placed the named ingredients on the bar. Then Koeppler raised his hands like a high priest. “Gather round,” he said. “Approach and draw nigh. True alchemy is about to take place.” And with that invocation, the three men began the first of many trial runs.

They poured and stirred and tasted. Yet no matter what they did, Authenticity, like a will-o-wisp, eluded them. No matter what they tried, it wasn’t quite right, according to Delaplane. The taste was either too bitter or too sweet. And like the Titanic, the cream insisted upon sinking to the bottom of the glass.

Delaplane was ready to surrender. He resigned himself to the hard truth: only the Irish knew how to make Irish Coffee.

Not Koeppler, though. He was on a mission from God. And taking up his cross, he journeyed to Shannon Airport to learn the arcane art of conjuring up Irish Coffee. He watched as Sheridan performed his magic: first pour in fresh, hot coffee; add two sugar cubes and stir with a spoon; pour in two fingers of whiskey; then the crown jewel — add a floating cloud of cream half-an-inch thick. The trick, Koeppler decided, was twofold. First, Sheridan pre-heated the glasses with boiling water, which was then tossed out before the coffee was added. Second, use only the finest ingredients. Irish whiskey that had a strong oak taste; coffee that had no ‘bite’ to it, but at the same time was potent; and only two cubes of the finest C&H sugar.

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Back in San Francisco, Koeppler and Delaplane engaged in more trial runs until — finally — Eureka! They got the taste just right. The only remaining obstacle to perfect Nectar of the Gods was the sagging cream. To resolve this nagging issue, Koeppler decided it was time to consult a dairy expert.

Delaplane and Koeppler jumped in a car and drove to a local dairy, which, it just so happened, was owned by the soon-to-be Mayor of San Francisco. His name was George Christopher and, like a chameleon, he was a man of many colors, making him hard to grasp. Not only was Christopher a liberal-Republican, who disapproved of communists yet became friends with Nikita Khrushchev, but he had been prosecuted for breaking milk price-fixing laws. Translation: he was an unrepentant felon, whom everyone liked because he was so much fun.

Informed of the creamy dilemma, the Mayor divined the problem might be overcome by refrigeration and proper blending. If the cream was cold enough and then lightly whipped to the texture of pancake batter, it should float.

The future-Mayor was correct on both counts. By refrigerating the cream for two days prior to whipping, it floated atop the hot coffee like a sailboat on the Bay.

On November 10, 1952, the Buena Vista served its first Irish Coffee. It was a triumph! From that day forward, the Buena Vista never looked back. Irish Coffee was the specialty of the house. Today, the Buena Vista serves 2,000 Irish Coffees each and everyday of the year.

However, that’s not where the story ends. Because down in SoCal, in Los Angeles, there’s a place called Tom Bergin’s Tavern that is a contender to the there-can-be-only-one crown. Tom Bergin’s Tavern declares the story began in Los Angeles in 1936. Not in San Francisco in 1952. The Tavern is so sure of their blue-ribbon that a large sign out front of the Tavern boldly states: “House of Irish Coffee.”

Tom Bergin, who was an attorney, opened his tavern in 1936. Back then it had the baroque name of The Old Horseshoe Tavern and Thoroughbred Club, and was located at 6110 Wilshire Boulevard. Then in 1949, Bergin decided to move the tavern, because “location is everything.” One block over was the distance of the move — to 840 S. Fairfax Avenue. Along with the new location came a more fashionable name: The Old Horseshoe Tavern. Regular customers referred to it simply as The Tavern. The nickname stuck. The Tavern quickly became and still remains one of L.A.’s favorite watering holes. The place was so popular that in 1955 Tom opened another one.

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Tom Bergin’s Tavern makes no bones about it — they were first. They got their recipe for Irish Coffee directly from Ireland and, according to Rob the head bartender, “served it from day one.” Which means they’ve been serving Irish Coffees since 1936.

According to the Tavern, they were not only first, but their Irish Coffee is better, because it’s mellower and goes down easier. The smoothness of an Irish Coffee at the Tavern is attributed to three things: layering, the brand of cream used, and the brand of coffee that supports the drink.

Rob wouldn’t reveal what brand of cream The Tavern used. All he could say was that “it was heavy cream. And, along with the coffee, it makes a big difference in the taste. The coffee and the cream have to be compatible.”

“What brand of coffee do you use?”

“It’s a secret,” he stated in a matter-of-fact voice. Then he added, “But I can tell you that layering is the key to great Irish Coffee.”

“What do you mean by layering?”

He explained. “First, you start with a heated glass. The glass is important. It has to be fairly thick so it holds the heat longer. A teaspoon of sugar goes in the glass. After that the coffee is poured in.”

“Do you stir the sugar in the coffee?”

“No. Absolutely not,” warned Rob. “Just pour the coffee over the sugar. Next add the whiskey. And again, no stirring. Then finally, you pour the cream on top.”

“What kind of whiskey do you use? Can you reveal that?”

“We use Jamesons.”

“Have you always used Jamesons?”

“No. We used Tullamore Dew for a long time. But then Jamesons came in and told us they’d like to be part of the tradition here. They worked with us to get just the right taste,” explained Rob.

“So the whiskey’s not all that important? Doesn’t it affect the taste?”

“Yeah,” said Rob. “But as long as it’s smooth with age, it’s not that big of a deal. The most important things are the brand of cream and the brand of coffee, especially the coffee. And the layering, of course.”

“Why is layering so important?”

“Because it affects the flow of the drink,” Rob said. “When you take a sip, the sugar flows through the coffee, which flows through the whiskey, which flows through the cream on top. So you taste the sugar as it flows through each successive layer. That’s what makes it taste so delicious — the layering.”

Rob’s explanation made sense. After listening to Rob, something else became clear too. Making Irish Coffee wasn’t for dopes or amateurs. You don’t just dump coffee, cream and whiskey in cup and top it off with Cool Whip. Irish Coffee, when done right, is akin to rocket-science or brain surgery.

What makes the debate even more interesting and a little nastier is the fact that in November of 2006, the Buena Vista Café changed the recipe for their Irish Coffee. Instead of the usual BV brand of whiskey, which was made by the Cooley Distillery in County Louth, they began using Tullamore Dew whiskey, which is distilled in Dublin.

This change resulted in an Irish Coffee that had a ‘bite’ to it, which, according to sundry experts, was sacrilege. Not only that, it flew in the face of Tradition, which was what real Irish Coffee was all about. Everyone knew that Irish Coffee wasn’t just a drink, it was a lot more. It was a way of life, a religion. And to up and change it was tantamount to converting from Holy Mother Church to Satanism. Heresy!

Cooley Distillery uses only the finest Irish barley and has its spring water source coming from the Sliabh na Gloch River. Cooley whiskey is single malt. And what makes Cooley’s whiskey different — and better — is copper pot stills with fat necks. A fat neck takes twice as long to pass through, so that the final product is more refined — smoother. Additionally, Cooley distills its whiskey twice, whereas most Irish whiskeys are distilled three times. Cooley maintains this gives their whiskey more flavor.

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Tullamore Dew is distilled three times and is what is known as “blended” Irish whiskey. When whiskey is blended, it means that different, unrelated batches of whiskey are mixed together to achieve a desired flavor. These unrelated batches of whiskey come from other distilleries or the open market. Why does blending occur? Simple. It reduces costs. In other words, it’s cheaper. And it can be mass-produced. Tullamore Dew can buy quantities of whiskey from all over Ireland, blend it, and turn out thousands of gallons of mediocre Irish whiskey. Or try it this way: Tullamore Dew is to whiskey what General Motors is to cars, assembly line production of functional but flawed automobiles. Junk. Cooley is like Ferrari, producing handcrafted, exquisite sports cars that are not only fast, but are also aesthetically pleasing and fun to drive.

Blending, according to whiskey aficionados, is synonymous with tainting. It’s like mixing cranberry juice with grape juice and apple juice and calling it Cranberry Cocktail. It’s a hodgepodge. Blending mangles the integrity of the spirits and brings out a bitter flavor. It’s that bitter flavor that makes for “bite.” And bite is bad.

That’s what the purists at the Buena Vista complained about when the switch from Cooley’s to Tullamore Dew took place. The Buena Vista had gone from the purity and smoothness of single malt whiskey to the bite of blended whiskey, which was nothing more than mongrel-whiskey — whiskey without pedigree.

Whereas when Tom Bergin’s Tavern switched from Tullamore Dew to Jameson’s, it went from blended whiskey to single-distillery whiskey. Jameson insisted on making every part of its whiskey “from grain to glass.” The result was a velvety-smooth, sweet-tasting whiskey without any bite.

Michael Carden, who was the manager of the Buena Vista, acknowledged that the change was “a big issue for some customers. They notice the difference in taste.”

The change in brands of whiskey came about because of one man. Bob Freeman, who is the owner of the Buena Vista Café. It was a prime example of the Golden Rule. The man who has the gold makes the rule. Freeman owns the joint, so he decided to swap one brand for another.

“Tullamore Dew is smoother,” said Freeman. It’s what we started with.”

Was price a consideration?

“No, no, no,” stated Freeman. “The cost is about the same.” According to Freeman, he simply liked the taste of Tullamore Dew over that of the Cooley.

Carden, the manager, who was a traditionalist, remained unconvinced. For him, the Cooley’s whiskey was unique. “It’s softer,” he explained. “It’s a softer whiskey. It doesn’t have an aftertaste.”

Who served the first Irish Coffee in California? Tom Bergin’s Tavern, possibly. The Tavern claims they began serving Irish Coffee in 1936, while the Buena Vista quoted November 10, 1952. And the year 1936 beats the year 1952 by a mile.

But there’s a problem. The Buena Vista has newspaper clippings from 1952, which sit inside fancy protective glass cases, which hang on the walls of the bar like diplomas in a doctor’s office — something to be proud of, the announcement of a sacred event. And the clippings talk about the brand new drink called Irish Coffee that was being served at the BV Café on Hyde Street. Whereas the Tavern, well, the Tavern has no such corroborating affidavits. Of course, just because The Tavern isn’t wallpapered with newsprint doesn’t mean much. Maybe it simply means they have higher aesthetic standards. Or that they hired a better interior decorator. All in all, it’s an awkward situation that we don’t need to spend a lot of time on.

Now as to which of these two fine establishments serves “the best” Irish Coffee, it’s hard to say. It’s like trying to decide who is the prettiest at a beauty pageant. They’re all gorgeous. What it comes down to in the end is taste. It’s a simple matter of taste. Some people prefer blondes, while others prefer brunettes. Some like blue eyes, others like brown eyes.

Patrons of both establishments — the Buena Vista and The Tavern — proclaim their preference in no uncertain terms. On the one hand, those who drink at the Buena Vista state that when one quaffs an Irish Coffee at the BV, one has found a prize too precious to sell.[2] To quote Tony the Tiger — he of the Frosted Flakes fame — “They’re greeaaaat!”

On the other hand, devotees of The Tavern assert that its Irish coffee is the beau ideal. There is no comparison. The Tavern’s Irish Coffee is a drink of unequalled excellence.

One suspects that proximity narrows perspective. It’s an 8-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And that’s if traffic is light, which, in California constitutes a miracle on the order of the Loaves and the Fishes. So it makes sense that the ‘best’ Irish Coffee just happens to be the one that’s closest.

All that, to say this: what it comes down to is bragging rights. And since wise men shouldn’t go where angels fear to tread, it’s probably best to wiggle out of declaring a winner[3], and thus who has those bragging rights, by the simple, ingenious maneuver of concluding that California is the winner. California has the best Irish Coffee in the world. Not only the best, but two — count ’em — places to get them: Tom Bergin’s Tavern and the Buena Vista Café.

Two days after talking to the bartender at Tom Bergin’s, Bergin himself called me. We had a nice discussion about Irish Coffee. The reason for his call? He called to tell me that his bartender was mistaken. The Buena Vista was first to introduce the Irish Coffee.

Sadly, Tom Bergin’s closed for good in January 2018.

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[1] At least that’s what the history books say, that Joe Sheridan invented the Irish Coffee. However, it should be carefully noted that Rob, the head bartender at Bergin’s Tavern, believes Irish Coffees were invented in America, not in Ireland. “It’s an American invention,” he said. In fact, Rob maintains that Irish Coffees were invented on the East Coast. His theory is that when all those Irish immigrants got off the ships, they needed something to warm themselves up. So they had coffee with sugar and cream. And to give it some heft, they added a shot of Irish Whisky. When you think about it, Rob’s theory doesn’t sound so theoretical. It sounds logical.

[2] Even the Tullamore Dew infused Irish Coffee is spectacular, although not quite as cashmere-like as the Cooley’s infusion.

[3] You may be asking yourself, does not the acceptance of a spurious perfection end the search for true perfection? Yeah, it probably does. The only excuse is that no one’s perfect.

Randy Radic is a former super model who succumbed to the ravages of time and age. Totally bereft of talent, he took up writing “because anyone can do it.”

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