The Café au Lait
In this article, we’ll walk you through a timeless classic in the coffee world, café au lait. Transport yourself to a Parisian cafe without ever leaving the house.
There are plenty of coffee-based cocktails out there. What we love about Irish coffee is that it is delicious, made with actual coffee (not coffee liqueur), and is relatively easy to make at home.
Plus, it features both coffee and whiskey, two of our favorite ingredients. Comforting and warming, but still sophisticated, Irish coffee is the perfect end to an enjoyable evening. Serve it as a digestif after dessert at a dinner party or curl up in your favorite armchair with a glass to cheer your soul on a cold evening.
Beginners are sometimes put off trying to make Irish coffee at home because it requires you to float a layer of cream over the spiked, sweetened coffee. This technique can look intimidating but is simpler than you might think, especially after a little practice.
And once you’ve mastered it, you can make some beautiful-looking Irish coffees – a skill that is sure to impress.
The Irish are famously good at spinning a yarn, so it makes sense that Irish coffee should have an origin story that has gone down in coffee-making legend.
The drink is usually credited to Irish chef, Joe Sheridan. Born in Northern Ireland in 1909, Sheridan moved south for work and landed a job at the terminal at Foynes Port, where he ran a restaurant and coffee shop.
He was working there in the winter of 1943 when a flight heading for New York was forced to turn back because of the terrible weather. Sheridan met the cold, tired passengers off the plane with coffee that he had spiked with some Irish whiskey.
When one of them asked him if he’d used Brazilian coffee, Sheridan jokingly replied that it was Irish coffee instead. The iconic drink had been born and soon gained popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sheridan was eventually recruited by the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco, which maintains its reputation for excellent Irish coffees to this day.
You won’t need a long list of specialist equipment to make Irish coffee at home. As a coffee enthusiast, you’ll likely have most of this to hand already.
Although not essential, one of those shakers often used by sports enthusiasts to mix protein shakes is also useful for the cream. If you don’t have one of those, use any watertight receptacle you can shake without spraying cream all over your kitchen. A regular cocktail shaker would work, or even just a bottle with a lid. Alternatively, you can use a whisk to whip your cream.
Irish coffee requires just four ingredients: Coffee, whiskey, sugar, and cream. Of course, there’s plenty of debate about the best coffee, best whiskey, and even the best sugar to use.
As always, we encourage you to try different combinations to find the mix that works for you. But here are some notes to get you started.
When you order an Irish coffee in a restaurant or bar that doesn’t specialize in it, you’ll often find it made with espresso since that’s what they have to hand.
Although you can make it that way, most enthusiasts say this overwhelms the taste of the whiskey. Since Irish coffee is all about finding a balance between rich coffee, mellow whiskey, and caramel sugar, you might instead opt for making your coffee in a French Press. Pour-over also works well.
You want a relatively strong coffee. Medium to dark roasts usually work best – they have the depth of flavor to stand up to the whiskey.
Whatever you choose, make sure your coffee is freshly brewed and still very hot. Since you’ll be adding whiskey and cold cream, you want the coffee hot, or your drink will be lukewarm by the time you drink it.
Irish coffee calls for Irish whiskey, which is smooth and mellow in flavor. Don’t be tempted to substitute it for Bourbon or Scotch – you’ll be making a different drink.
Jamesons is a classic choice that is readily available and not too expensive. But you can experiment with different Irish whiskeys to find the one you like best in your Irish coffee.
The better quality the whiskey, the better your Irish coffee will be. You don’t necessarily have to go for the very top shelf stuff, but don’t cheap out here either.
Irish coffee is sweetened with sugar. Presumably, this originally helped to restore the cold passengers returning to Foynes Port in 1943. But it also plays a practical role, in helping the cream to float on top of the coffee.
Even if you usually drink your coffee unsweetened, we recommend using sugar here to get the authentic Irish Coffee flavor. Floating the cream without it will be a challenge too.
You have the choice of what sugar to use. We’ve even seen it done with maple syrup. But the classic recipe uses either demerara or soft brown sugar. These have a richer, more caramel flavor that pairs well with the coffee and whiskey.
Some recipes suggest making a sugar syrup. If you have some to hand, by all means, use it. The syrup does mix more easily with the coffee. But we don’t feel that it is necessary to add this extra step unless you want to.
The cream on top of an Irish coffee is only lightly whipped, so please stay clear of those pre-whipped versions that come in cans. Heavy cream is the classic choice, although you can also use whipping cream.
Either shake the cream in a container or use a whisk to get it to a lightly whipped texture. You want it just thickened enough that pulling a spoon through it leaves a line behind, but no more than that.
It’s also easiest to float the cream when it’s cold, so keep it in the fridge right up until you need it.
This is a fairly classic recipe for Irish coffee. Use it as a starting point for developing your own – it can be tweaked and modified to meet your taste. This makes one Irish coffee, so adjust quantities accordingly if you are making multiple cups.
The first step is to warm the glass before you make your Irish coffee. This prevents heat loss and keeps your drink hot. Pour your freshly boiled water into the glass. Leave it to stand while you brew your coffee. Then discard it.
Add the sugar and then the Irish whiskey. Pour in a little bit of coffee and stir it all together to dissolve the sugar.
Add the rest of the coffee and stir again to distribute the sugar and whiskey evenly.
Next comes the tricky part. Take your spoon and hold it upside down over the glass. Slowly pour your cream over the back of the spoon to float it on top of your coffee.
If you like, you can add a few coffee beans or a grating of nutmeg to garnish your drink.
Sit back and enjoy!
Don’t forget to record what you’ve done in the Good Fika app, including proportions, what beans you used, and what whiskey you chose. Then you can replicate the steps or make changes as needed.