Coffee is life for many people, considering that it is a go-to drink for busy students and professionals who want a quick caffeine rush. Meanwhile, hardcore coffee and liquor fans prefer to spice up their cozy weekends sipping the best sweet wines or making Irish coffee in their kitchens.
Made from hot coffee, sugar, cream, and a hearty slug of whiskey, Irish coffee is whiskey’s best fireside cocktail on a chilly night, or when you need to rejuvenate your mind and soul by drinking a glass of a booze-fueled caffeinated beverage. To help you enjoy this luscious beverage this 2021, we asked a group of professional bartenders for their favorite whiskies to use in Irish coffee. Without further ado, we’ve compiled a list of their best whiskies for Irish coffee.
Open since 2012, the Teeling distillery in Dublin uses a recipe inspired by the founders’ ancestor, Walter Teeling, who made whiskey in a small Dublin craft distillery back in the late 1700s. The small-batch whiskey made by the new Teeling generation works beautifully in an Irish whiskey, according to beverage director Mike Di Tota of The Smith in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago: “With its high malt content and the fact that it was matured in former rum casks, this whiskey adds a roundness with a deliciously creamy, spicy, rich flavor profile to an Irish coffee. I pick up notes of salinity and citrus, which heighten the flavor and the aroma of the coffee and play nicely with the whipped cream on top.”
Tullamore D.E.W. is an Irish whiskey heritage brand, so it stands to reason that this classic spirit works well in Irish coffee. For General Manager Kimberley Lay of Boulud Sud Miami, Tullamore D.E.W.’s XO Caribbean Rum Cask expression provides an especially harmonious complement to the drink’s other elements. “[In my Irish coffee,] I use Tullamore D.E.W. XO Caribbean Rum Cask; its sweet, toasty rum flavor [then gets] topped with the best Cuban coffee and a big dollop of what we British call ‘Devonshire cream’, which is just a few churns away from being butter!” Lay tells The Manual.
Essentially the Irish version of moonshine, poitín is a barley-based white spirit distilled in copper pot stills. Dave Mulligan, owner of Bar 1661 in Dublin, prefers poitín to typical whiskey in his Irish coffee, with a particular preference for Mad March Hare Premium Irish Poitín: “At Bar 1661, our signature drink is The Belfast Coffee. As specialists in poitín, our native white Irish spirit, we wanted to create a variation on the classic Irish coffee, familiar but unexpected, to act as our house drink. Poitín, with its naturally earthy and terroir-based flavor, is actually a much better fit with coffee than most blended whiskies. Poitín marries flavor with a new authentic Irish experience. The Belfast Coffee is a cold-brewed version of the classic; we developed our own bean blend with local roasters to make our cold-brew coffee in-house. We then mix our coffee with sugar and spirit, such as Mad March Hare Poitín, stirred down like a martini with the classic layering of Irish cream and grated nutmeg in a bespoke Irish coffee glass.”
When it comes to American bars offering Irish coffee, there’s probably no finer example than The Dead Rabbit in New York City, a cocktail-world icon headed up by Irish co-founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry. Muldoon and McGarry include a classic Irish coffee on The Dead Rabbit’s menu, and their whiskey of choice is Bushmills Original. “Our signature cocktail drink at The Dead Rabbit is our Irish coffee – it took us a long time to get it right, and I genuinely think that the one we’re doing now with Bushmills Original is the best. Bushmills Original has the highest grain content of the blends, which makes the whole Irish coffee lighter. Irish coffee shouldn’t be heavy or overbearing,” Muldoon tells us.
An Irish whiskey brand founded by MMA fighter Conor McGregor, Proper No. Twelve Whiskey provides a well-developed balance of flavors and a smooth texture, which enhances the richness of an Irish coffee. “For a great Irish coffee, I have really been into Proper No. Twelve Whiskey. Proper No. Twelve makes a special blend for their whiskey that involves a small percentage of malt instead of being 100% grain like [many other Irish whiskies]. This makes a great, smooth whiskey with amazing character. In my opinion, it’s probably the best choice for a great Irish coffee because of the hints of vanilla, toasted wood, and honey. And the best part of it is that [McGregor] donates $5 from every case [purchase] to local first responders (firemen, police, etc.), [which is] amazing,” says owner Martin Cabrera of South Pointe Tavern in Miami.
When bar manager Stephan Jurgovan of Band of Bohemia in Chicago makes an Irish coffee, he always reaches for a bottle of Knappogue Castle 12-Year Single Malt Whiskey. “I highly suggest Knappogue Castle 12 Year Single Malt Whiskey! It’s a single malt Irish whiskey aged in bourbon barrels. It’s quite full-bodied for an Irish whiskey and has lots of fresh apricot tones to it, which make for a very stocky Irish coffee! Some would say it’s too ‘nice’ to mix with coffee, [but] I say go for it!” Jurgovan explains.
Another single malt from Ireland, The Sexton Irish Whiskey is the #1 Irish coffee spirit for bartender Marcos Ladd of Cleo South Beach in Miami, who tells us that “the best Irish coffee is made with The Sexton Irish Whiskey. This is a true Irish whiskey, and the flavor is fantastic. An Irish coffee requires an authentic flavor that only the Sexton Irish Whiskey brings to the table. The Sexton is a single malt Irish whiskey that is scented boldly with vanilla and honey. It’s distilled in copper pot stills, giving a sweetness that really shows off its unique malty character.”
Purists will tell you that an Irish coffee absolutely must include Irish whiskey … but open-minded bartenders enjoy experimenting with brown liquors from different parts of the world, to delicious effect. For example, Hilary Chadwick, the director of food and beverage for Viviane at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, “love[s] Baker’s Bourbon at for Irish coffees. It’s an incredibly complex, spiced 7-year bourbon that plays very nicely with the bolder notes of our La Colombe coffee. Layer on a bit of hand-whipped cream, and it’s the perfect combination for a chilly night by the pool.”
If you’re up for venturing still farther from the whiskey territory of Ireland, Japanese whisky brings a welcome complexity to an Irish coffee, resulting in a hot beverage quite unlike any you’ve had before. “I love using Japanese whisky [like] Nikka Coffey Grain in the Irish (/Japanese) coffee; it brings a lot of depth. You can also replace the cream [traditionally on top] with a soy/tofu version, which is very appealing,” recommends beverage director Nico de Soto of Kaido in Miami.
For an Irish coffee with a unique flavor profile, consider an infused whiskey like Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey. Lead bartender John Jeide of The Buena Vista in San Francisco swears by this spirit as a valuable addition to the classic bar’s twist on Irish coffee (fittingly called the ‘Skrewed Up Coffee’)…and because The Buena Vista is largely credited with being the first American bar to serve Irish coffee, their willingness to play around with the traditional formula and offer this variation is a testament to Skrewball’s quality. “I am a big fan of Skrewball because I like the taste of it and I know it really sells, especially mixed in with drinks like a hot chocolate or coffee in the fall. This drink is perfect for someone willing to try something else that they haven’t tried before,” Jeide claims.
Last updated January 2021.
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