Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista

What’s the best way to start your morning on St. Patrick’s Day?  With an Irish Coffee o’ course!

I’m not a whiskey girl, but if it means hanging out at San Francisco’s iconic The Buena Vista Café—world famous for their Irish Coffees—I want in.  On St. Patrick’s Day, they pour 3,000 Irish Coffees.

Initially The Buena Vista was just a cozy breakfast joint, tucked between Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.  But in 1952, Stanton Delaplane (an international travel writer for the Chronicle) approached Buena Vista’s co-owner Jack Koeppler and asked him to recreate the Irish Coffee that he had just sampled at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.

The duo worked tirelessly to reproduce the same coffee and, after many attempts and a lot of research (see below), they prevailed.

The New York Times recently did a story about John Jeide, who has been pouring Buena Vista’s Irish Coffees for the last seven years so I was excited when he recently told me some of his secrets:

Glass shape:  The right glassware is crucial.  The Buena Vista Cafe uses a tempered glass in the shape of an upside down bell, which pushes all the ingredients together so the coffee, whiskey, and cream float to the top in layers.   The glass must also be heated with hot water before pouring in coffee.

Whiskey:  It must be Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey.  They use almost 50,000 gallons a year, and their single restaurant location is the largest buyer in the world.  Their first shipment came right into Fisherman’s Wharf in 1953.

Cream:  Initially, the cream wouldn’t float on top of the coffee.  After a call to the mayor of San Francisco, who was also a dairy owner, Jack discovered the cream must have a 36% fat content and had to be aged for 48 hours before it would float “like a swan” atop his prized Irish Coffee.

Never stir:  Once the sugar and coffee are swirled together, the whiskey and cream layer on top and should never be stirred.  There’s something special about sipping the hot coffee through a thick layer of cool cream.

Bar tender attire:  Bar tenders wear long white sleeves to protect from flying hot coffee.  By the end of the day, they’re covered.

My favorite part?  They offer Irish Coffee to go.  When I asked the manager (Kevin Jones, pictured above with bartender John Jeide) how they navigate California’s alcohol restrictions, he smiled and showed me a mini bottle of whiskey:  “We pour your coffee, you take this little bottle, and the rest isn’t our business.”  I asked if the whole bottle goes in.  “Absolutely.”


The Buena Vista Recipe:  Irish Coffee

Serves:  1 Irish Coffee

Ingredients:

  • About 4 oz hot, organic coffee
  • 2 sugar cubes
  • 1 ½ ounces of Irish Whiskey
  • ¾ oz heavy whipping cream (whipped to soft peaks—you’ll have leftover)

Steps:

  1. Fill glass with very hot water to pre-heat, then empty.
  2. Drop in two sugar cubes. Pour hot coffee into hot glass until it is about three quarters full. 
  3. Stir until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved.
  4. Add Irish Whiskey for proper taste and body.  (Don’t stir!)
  5. Top with a collar of lightly whipped whipping cream by pouring gently over the convex side of a spoon.  Enjoy it while piping hot.