Once the go-to cheeky cocktail for your gran after Christmas dinner, the Irish coffee is enjoying something of a cool renaissance across the capital. Caught up in the trend for classic drinks – here’s looking at you whisky sours, manhattans and negronis – the Irish coffee has shaken off its fusty rep to become a bona fide choice for an early evening drink with friends, or an after dinner digestif.
No one’s more delighted than James Doherty, founder of Sliabh Liag Distillery in Co. Donegal, Ireland. ‘Mixed coffee cocktails are definitely on the up. Lots of people, especially women, are barcalling the espresso martini. But, the Irish coffee is still top dog amongst coffee cocktails and despite the rise of Irish and Ginger, is still the world’s favourite Irish whiskey mixed drink.’
He attributes part of its resurgence to our snobbishness, or should I say, particularity, around coffee, and a revival in interest of vintage serves. ‘Bartenders are looking to interpret old classics now, craft coffee roasters are smashing out some wild flavours, and then you’ve got new Irish whiskeys like our Silkie, which gives bartenders a wide range to play with.’
Barista Celeste Wong agrees. ‘There’s so much you can do with cocktails by adding coffee because it enhances flavours but also balances out sweeter alcohols. I like a traditional Irish coffee with whiskey and strong coffee, but, as I’m from New Zealand, instead of adding cream and sugar, I add Baileys original Irish cream to it – it’s like an adult flat white.’
‘Like coffee, whiskey is a particularly multi-sensory drink that is delicate and interesting,’ she adds. ‘People are starting to get more curious about this drink again.’
‘We’re going to see a lot more innovation in the near future,’ says Doherty. ‘ Bring it on.’
Aaron Wall and Ciarán Smith at Islington bar Homeboy are examples of these experimenters. They use Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey for authenticity, and incorporate coffee bitters and muscovado syrup to intensify the coffee notes. Meanwhile the team at Swift in Soho source their strong brewed Colombian dark roast coffee from their neighbour and Soho institution, the Algerian Coffee Stores.
For a drink that is, at heart, whisky, coffee, and cream, it’s tough to get it right. Federico Sardella head bartender at Smith & Wollensky plays it pretty close to the rules with his take on the classic. ‘I place a teaspoon upside down so the tip is just touching the surface of the coffee and pour the fridge cold double cream slowly to create the float.’
Where to get the best Irish coffees in London
If you’re a stickler for detail, then Swift’s Irish coffee is the one for you. They keep the coffee warm in a sous vide and the cream cold for the perfect contrast when served. For whiskey they use Jameson Caskmates, which has a stout barrel finish giving it a dark rich coffee flavour that naturally works well with the rest of the drink.
Swift, 12 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4TQ, barswift.com
Smith & Wollensky
If you can make a claim to some sort of dubious Irish heritage – 6/15ths and the like – then perhaps you’d be best keeping company with the crowd at Smith & Wollensky, the London outpost of the American steak restaurant. Whether your genealogy is spurious or not, there’s no half measures with their Irish coffee.
Smith & Wollensky, The Adelphi Building, Covent Garden Riverside, 1-11 John Adam St, London WC2N 6HT, smithandwollensky.co.uk
The signature serve of Ireland is also, almost by default Homeboy’s signature cocktail too. With Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey, coffee bitters and dark muscovado syrup, it’s an intensely coffee-packed drink.
Homeboy, 108 Essex Rd, London N1 8LX, homeboybar.com
Richard Corrigan is the doyen of all things Irish and food in London, and his bar, Dickie’s will be serving Irish coffee and Black Velvet in honour of St Patrick for the whole of this week. The bar also has a vast collection of Irish whiskies, including some rarities, should you find yourself staying longer, with time to be distracted from the coffee cause.
Dickie’s Bar, 28 Upper Grosvenor Street, Mayfair, London W1K 7EH, dickies.corrigancollection.com