How to Recreate Brennan’s Irish Coffee at Home
The just-closed West Berkeley stalwart may not have invented Irish coffee, but it certainly perfected it.
Photo by Lori Eanes
One of the East Bay’s oldest watering holes, Brennan’s in West Berkeley, finally closed its doors on Sept. 15 after a 60-year run as the go-to hofbrau and neighborhood bar for generations of locals. Disappearing along with the business itself is the recipe for its signature cocktail, the Irish coffee — a drink so intimately identified with Brennan’s that the iconic neon sign out front read “Brennan’s Irish Coffee,” as if that was the pub’s official name.
“We’ve been serving Irish coffee since the day we first opened in 1959,” said Margaret Wade, the bar’s final owner and the granddaughter of its original founder, John Brennan. “In the late ’50s, it was a trendy drink; we weren’t the first to serve it, but we quickly became famous for serving the best.”
The comparatively recent origins of Irish coffee — comprising whiskey, cream, coffee, and sugar — are shrouded in mystery and a bit of controversy. We know for a fact that San Francisco’s Buena Vista Cafe began serving the drink in 1952, but competing (and contradictory) legends surround its introduction.
One version says that the café’s then-bartender, Stanton Delaplane — who became the San Francisco Chronicle’s travel columnist — invented the Irish Coffee from scratch, on his own. Years later, however, Delaplane expanded upon his tale, and justified the drink’s “Irish” moniker, by claiming that he had first been offered a similar drink at the Shannon Airport bar in Ireland, which inspired his own recipe.
It was only then that the Shannon Airport’s bartender himself, Joe Sheridan, accepted credit, claiming — with no real proof — to have actually invented the drink to console weary travelers one rainy night way back in 1943. The convoluted legend then circled back on itself with the subsequent rumor that Joe Sheridan left Ireland in 1952 to work for ... the Buena Vista Cafe, bringing his cocktail with him. (One suspects that Delaplane progressively embroidered his drink’s origin-story to anoint it with a more authentic “Irish” ancestry.)
The truth is that people have been putting liquor into coffee for centuries, with similar recipes — for such drinks such as the Karsk, the Pharisäer, and caffè corretto — already well-established in Europe by the mid-20th century. Irish coffee’s name, embarrassingly, probably derives from the now cringe-worthy ethnic stereotypes of that era, which stipulated that Irishmen were all drunkards, and thus the act of adding alcohol to anything rendered it “Irish.”
Although any modern mixologist can whip up something close to an Irish coffee upon request, Not many contemporary bars still have it on the menu, and fewer still do it in a way that Delaplane — or Sheridan or Wade — would consider proper.
“Brennan’s will forever be associated with Irish coffee,” Wade said. “We may not have invented it, but we perfected it.”
With Brennan’s gone, the best way to recreate the true Irish coffee experience is to make it yourself at home, exactly as Brennan’s did for 60 years:
Brennan’s-Style Irish Coffee
1 glass coffee mug or similar “Irish coffee glass”
1 teaspoon white sugar
2/3 cup old-fashioned hot coffee
2 ounces Irish whiskey
1 ounce manufacturer’s cream (or other heavy cream)
Choose any mid-sized drinking container made from tempered glass that has either a handle or a stem. Pre-heat the glass by holding it under very hot water from the tap, or pouring a small amount of boiling water into it. Empty the glass, then add one teaspoon of granulated white sugar. Fill the glass about 2/3 of the way (exact amount depends on the size of the glass) with freshly brewed hot coffee; Brennan’s used Farmer Brothers brand, which is generally not sold directly to consumers; instead, use any old-fashioned brand such as Folger’s, MJB, Hills Bros., or Maxwell House (to recreate the drink’s original 1950s flavor profile). Add two (or three) ounces of Irish whiskey, such as Jameson, Bushmills, or Tullamore Dew. Carefully top off with about 1 ounce of either “manufacturer’s cream” or (if that’s not available) heavy cream; the higher the fat content, the better it floats. Either slowly pour a thin stream in a circular motion around the surface, or pour over the back of a spoon into the glass. Do not stir.