A Tale of Two Irish Coffees: The SF Original, and the Trendy Frozen Twist
(Courtesy of Buena Vista Cafe/Facebook)

A Tale of Two Irish Coffees: The SF Original, and the Trendy Frozen Twist


There is something so strangely tantalizing about the Irish coffee. Is it the heady, upper-downer mix of caffeine and whiskey? The curvaceous glass that tries at elegance but whiffs of debauchery? Or perhaps it's the sugar and cream that make this well-meaning drink a legitimate dessert? The answer: all of the above.

San Francisco, of course, claims this cocktail classic as its own, and since the recipe officially arrived at the Wharf's Buena Vista back in 1952, the cocktail has warmed up and boozed up literally millions of tourists and locals. But while there's still only one OG, modern barkeeps can't help but try to reinvent the much-celebrated drink. Here's where to revisit the classic, as well as taste a contemporary counterpart, in the city.

The OG Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista

As with many great classic cocktails, the debate is spirited as to how the Irish coffee came to be such a phenomenon in SF. But locals serious about their history may know the gist of the tale.

Most people believe that a chef by the name of Joe Sheridan made the drink at Foynes (now called Shannon) Airport in Ireland for then-San Francisco Chronicle travel writer Stanton Delaplane. The scribe loved it so much that we went on and on about it to Jack Koeppler, then-owner of SF's Buena Vista. R&D to recreate the drink ensued, going so far as to take Koeppler to Ireland to learn about whiskey. There was cream testing too, and obviously a lot of imbibing.

The recipe settled that was settled upon would be served in the iconic goblet, and is a slightly sweet and delightfully creamy coffee drink where the Irish whiskey never dominates, but the maltiness and alcohol provide a constant hum—the white noise of the drink, if you will, that ends up leading imbibers to make a lot of noise themselves.

While there are other excuses to head for the Buena Vista without the requisite out-of-towner in tow—like breakfast all day and Ghirardelli chocolate–dipped bacon—the Irish coffee, with its fun bit of history, is still the draw. (The drink was also, unsurprisingly, recently named by 7x7 among the 50 most iconic cocktails in SF.)

Want to make it at home?

​Buena Vista Cafe's Irish Coffee Recipe

Ingredients (serves 1)

1.5 ounces Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey

Hot brewed coffee (Buena Vista uses Peerless, roasted in Oakland)

2 sugar cubes

Heavy whipped cream

Grab a glass mug and begin with a hot water rinse for warmth.

Add the hot coffee and stir in the sugar cubes until fully dissolved. Stir in the whiskey. Finally, gently pour a spoon-sized dollop of thick cream on top. (The Buena Vista ages its cream for 48 hours, making it hardy enough to float atop the hot coffee until all the obligatory photos have been snapped.)

The Irish Coffee Slushy at Rooftop 25

The Buena Vista's version may be the most famous, but it's definitely not the only Irish coffee show in town.

At the new SoMa bar Rooftop 25, barman Elmar Mejicanos has created a riff on the classic but with quite a departure: To start with, it's a slushy. Despite the inclusion of coffee, this drink is utterly unique in its ingredients: coffee liqueur, chocolate liqueur, and vodka. Yes, that's right: no Irish whiskey. Mejicanos' iteration also has roughly three ounces of booze in it— nearly double that of the Buena Vista!. The two liqueurs lend a bit of a sugary profile that will almost certainly remind you of a Starbucks Frappuccino, but the fresh coffee and housemade Madagascar vanilla syrup jump in to provide a very welcome earthy-nutty backbone.

The coffee used for the drink is also roasted in Oakland except this time from Mr. Espresso. In place of the cream on top, the drink gets its body from ice. As general manager Nathan Sheeran says, "It's Irish coffee alfresco." And given the rooftop patio nature of the place, a cold drink does make sense: You're outside, you're having fun—slushies for everyone.

Prefer your booze on a stick? The Irish coffee here also comes in boozy popsicle form.

So, one Irish coffee is served warm at a tourist checklist legend. The other screams of happy hour with trendy frozen drinks. Get your caffeine and booze buzz on at both—and then let us know your favorite.

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