You might think making an Irish Coffee is easy. Just dump some whiskey into a cup of coffee with sugar, right? Wrong.
At Fort Defiance in Brooklyn, owner St. John Frizell’s version of the classic hot cocktail is a work of whiskey-spiked art. In fact, the New York Times called it “the greatest Irish Coffee in the known world.” Here, Frizell reveals his tricks for making the best Irish Coffee possible.
Finding the Best Irish Whiskey for the Job
There are more Irish whiskeys available on American liquor store shelves than ever before. While you generally wouldn’t use a premium spirit for a cocktail with as many ingredients as the Irish Coffee, the whiskey at the base of the drink should be flavorful and good quality. At Fort Defiance, Frizell exclusively uses Powers. His choice is based on price (mid-level), the spirit’s exceptional taste, and its higher proof. “Powers just tastes like Fort Defiance Irish Coffee now,” he says.
The Perfect Measure of Whiskey
Although most recipes call for a two ounce pour of Irish whiskey (including ours), Frizell recommends using only 1.5 ounces. He cautions that if you use any more, it could feel too boozy. “When you’re dealing with hot alcohol, the heat magnifies everything,” he says. “The punch you get is so much stronger in a hot drink than a cold one. To be mindful of that, you generally want to use less alcohol in a hot drink than you would in a cold drink.”
Building the Best Drink
“Everything you do when building an Irish Coffee should be about ensuring that the hot parts of the drink are as hot as possible when it’s served,” says Frizell. To build the cocktail, he instructs, “Pour hot water into the mug that the drink will be served in. Then, put the smaller part of a shaker tin into the mug of hot water—this will serve as a double-boiler. Add the whiskey and simple syrup to the tin so they can heat up. While everything warms, get your espresso ready. When it’s ready, pour the water from the mug out, and add your now warm whiskey and sugar into the heated mug. Fill the mug with eight or nine ounces of boiling water and then pour your espresso on top.” Even if you don’t own an espresso machine—like a proper cocktail bar would—you can (and should) still build your Irish Coffee the same way at your home. To replicate the recipe, instead of using the measure of hot water and espresso, simply use hot coffee.
Note: If you’re not using espresso, it is absolutely crucial to make your coffee as strong as possible. Use a double measure of coffee grounds, a finer grind or opt for a pour-over system.
Whipping the Cream
At Fort Defiance, Frizell keeps heavy cream in a thick glass bottle, which is kept refrigerated. Whenever an Irish Coffee is ordered, bartenders shake the cream until it turns into a thick, velvety “whipped” cream. “I learned how to make an Irish Coffee from Dale DeGroff, in a class that I took from him about 17 years ago,” he says. “At the Rainbow Room, DeGroff would keep a metal bowl on ice, and whisk the cream for an Irish Coffee to order. We originally were shaking our cream in [cocktail] tins, but they’re so hard to clean when they have cream on them. We were also wasting a lot [of whipped cream] because we would dump whatever was leftover to wash the tins. A glass bottle was just a practical solution to that problem: It’s reusable, you just have to wash it at the end of the night, and you can keep topping it off, shaking it to order.”
At home, Frizell recommends using shaker tins or a wide mouthed glass bottle like they do at Fort Defiance. “If you use a bottle with a narrow mouth, you’ll have trouble getting the [shaken cream] out,” he says. “An Irish Coffee has two parts essentially: the hot drink, and the cold thick cream. The greatest thing about the drink is that first mouthful, where it’s super hot, and then super cold.” If you don't shake your cream hard enough, it will fall into the drink and melt as opposed to sitting on top of it. So make sure you put some muscle behind that shake.
Not All Mugs Are Created Equal
You want a mug that is not too conductive—so save those copper mugs for Moscow Mules. “A glass mug will work as long as it’s tempered,” Frizell says. Also, unlike a ceramic mug, glass mugs allow you to see those beautiful layers.
The Right Way to Garnish
While nutmeg is an option, Frizell opts for grated fresh cinnamon instead. Not only does this create beautiful aromatics as you sip the cocktail, but as the cream melts into the cocktail, the cinnamon will gradually incorporate itself into the drink, adding another layer of complexity.