What do flying boats and Irish coffee have in common? Everything, and more.

I should know: my family tree has a direct bloodline to Joe Sheridan, the legendary chef who invented this classic Irish cocktail. Nutty and caramely, it’s a rich, hot blend of dark coffee, fiery whiskey, brown sugar and a swirl of thick whipped cream. An Emerald Isle favourite for over 70 years, this quintessential Irish beverage has unorthodox beginnings.

Tracing the roots of Irish coffee requires venturing to Foynes, a tiny town on Ireland’s west coast that was once the epicentre for the aviation world. During World War II, Pan Am’s famed flying boats (a.k.a. clippers) transported a range of people, from celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and John F. Kennedy, to refugees (children fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe). It’s here that commercial air travel was born — as well as Irish coffee.

Irish Coffee

One wintery night in 1943, a clipper departed from Foynes to North America, but the flight didn’t get far. After battling bad weather conditions for several hours, the captain decided to return to Ireland. As the weary passengers offloaded into the airport’s restaurant, Chef Joe Sheridan decided to prepare a special treat to spread some cheer. He brewed dark, bitter coffee, and to each cup added a shot of Irish whiskey, a little brown sugar and whipped cream on top. As the perked-up passengers slurped up the steamy drink, one asked, “Is it Brazilian coffee?”

“No,” Sheridan said. “That was Irish coffee!”

With those four words, a classic Irish drink was born. However, it took almost a decade before the toasty tipple traveled worldwide. In 1951, Stanton Delaplane, a travel journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, took his first sip and was instantly hooked. Back home, Delaplane raved about the newfangled Irish coffee drink to Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista Café. The duo tried to re-create Sheridan’s recipe, stirring and sipping all night, but the taste was off and the cream collapsed on the surface.

Enjoy Sheridan's original recipe for Irish coffee at the Foynes Maritime Museum

Enjoy Sheridan’s original recipe for Irish coffee at the Foynes Maritime Museum.

After a slew of taste tests and a “research” trip to Ireland, the two men finally cracked the code: the tricky cream only floated when aged and frothed to a precise thickness. Regardless, they decided to poach another key ingredient: Chef Sheridan himself. In 1953, Joe Sheridan immigrated to the United States and started working at the Buena Vista Café.

Chef Sheridan’s original recipe is still served at the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco and the Foynes Maritime Museum, where there’s a small exhibit dedicated to the drink. Of course, virtually all bars and restaurants in Ireland have this boozy beverage on their menu, though flavours may vary.

However, there’s no need to travel across the pond for a mouthful of this hot cocktail. Just gather all the ingredients in your kitchen and follow these instructions. If you’re really looking to impress guests, pair the drink with a plate of Irish Coffee Pie or Anna Olson’s Irish Creamy Fudge.

valerie's irish coffee

Once you’ve mastered the recipe, get playful and try this decadent recipe for Valerie Bertinelli’s Irish Coffee, made with espresso and topped with Lemon-Vanilla Whipped Cream. Or, delight guests with Irish coffee with a Canadian twist, spiked with Canadian whisky, a drizzle of maple syrup, and maple-laced whipped cream.

For a fancy after-dinner nightcap, make a batch of Nancy Fuller’s Dressed Up Irish Coffee, sprinkled with shaved dark chocolate, it’s almost a dessert in a glass. The options are endless.

This St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be celebrating my bloodline to booze legend, Chef Joe Sheridan, by raising a glass of Irish coffee. From my family, to coffee and whiskey lovers everywhere, I say: you’re welcome and Sláinte!