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The origins of Irish coffee

The period between 1939 and 1945, generally or historically, is regarded as a metaphor for war.

However, away from the battlefields of the world during this period, another kind of war was taking place – which eventually would revolutionize coffee-drinking in Ireland and around the world.

In that era, commercial trave l- especially by air- was in its fledgling stages. Passengers, invariably, were an embattled lot – especially in cold weather. American travelers to Ireland, at that time, were no exception.

Their journey to Ireland by seaplane typically traversed the Atlantic in about 18 hours. This was followed by another (two-hour) trip by boat, which brought them to the airbase terminal in the port town of Foynes. By this point in time, most of the passengers were miserable and grey with cold. Quite clearly, a need was present- in terms of lifting the spirits of these travelers.

Foynes catering services, owned and managed by Brendan O’ Regan, functioned as a restaurant at the airbase terminal during this period. The proprietor was familiar with, and concerned by, the plight of the travelers.

On a particularly stormy night in 1943, things got even worse for American travelers on the said route. Bad weather had compelled a return – to the airbase terminal – of their flight, sometime after take-off. The needs of the unhappy passengers, as they disembarked (at Foynes) after their ordeal, was not lost on Brendan O’ Regan. He approached his head chef, Joseph Sheridan, presenting him with the challenge of producing a drink that would warm the bodies and spirits of these unlucky voyagers.

Joseph Sheridan, in the process of tinkering to find the ‘magic’ drink, wisely revisited a profound truth about the Irish; he knew that for quite a long time the Irish had taken their tea with whiskey. This piece of knowledge became the very foundation for his idea of Irish coffee.

Sheridan understood that tea was not strong enough to meet the need of the hour. He therefore substituted coffee for tea, while retaining the whiskey element of the ‘equation’. He then topped this with coffee cream. Irish coffee was born – but it had not been given a name at this point.

The stranded passengers at Foynes were served this drink and it immediately began to attract comments and interest. One of the passengers, out of curiosity, asked Joseph Sheridan if the drink that had been served was Brazilian coffee. Sheridan replied that it was not Brazilian coffee, but Irish coffee.

The drink had been born, and also now had a name.

It has, ever since, been called Irish coffee. Today, variations of Joseph Sheridan’s recipe abound, in such forms as Kentucky coffee (made with Bourbon), Scotch coffee (made with Scotch), Bailey’s coffee (made with Bailey’s Irish cream).

In later years, variations of this drink emerged in other parts of the world, notably the USA where the Buena Vista hotel in San Francisco became the first business in America to commercialize the drink.