Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” With its damp air and piercing Pacific wind, the City by the Bay can be nippy year-round. I recall a late-summer visit where the wind was whipping at my tail as I strolled along Fisherman’s Wharf after dinner.
Fortunately, a perfect remedy lurked nearby. The Buena Vista Cafe, which is known worldwide for their steaming cups of Irish coffee, was only few blocks up one of the city’s famous hills. As I trudged up the steep incline, the Buena Vista’s red neon sign served as a beacon signaling relief from the cold. The long and narrow bar draws devoted locals as well as out-of-towners relaxing after a day of sightseeing.
Watching the staff at the Buena Vista make the Irish coffees is a spectacle in itself. When the small cafe gets crowded, the bartenders line glass mugs up and down the tapered bar assembly-line style. Methodically, the staff pours blazing hot coffee into the waiting mugs, followed by sugar cubes and jiggers of Irish whiskey. Finally the toddies are topped with generous dollops of whipped cream before being served to eager customers waiting to warm their souls with steaming goodness.
Some mistakenly believe that the Buena Vista invented the Irish coffee. According to the Museum of the American Cocktail, Irish coffee was invented in 1942 by Joseph Sheridean, the head chef at Foynes Airbase in Limerick (now Shannon Airport), as a way to provide a warming beverage to cold and weary travelers.
According to the bar’s Web site (www.thebuenavista.com), on the night of November 10, 1952 Jack Koeppler, then-owner of the Buena Vista, challenged international travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help re-create the highly touted Irish coffee served at Shannon Airport. Intrigued, Stan accepted Jack’s invitation, and the pair began to experiment.
Throughout the night they stirred and sipped judiciously and eventually acknowledged two recurring problems. The taste was “not quite right,” and the cream would not float. Jack pursued the elusive elixir with religious fervor, even making a pilgrimage overseas to Ireland.
Upon Jack’s return, the experimentation continued. Finally, the perfect-tasting Irish whiskey was selected. Then the problem of the bottom-bent cream was taken to San Francisco’s mayor, a prominent dairy owner. It was discovered that when the cream was aged for 48 hours and frothed to a precise consistency, it would float on the surface.
Soon the fame of the Buena Vista’s Irish coffee spread. According to a Frommer’s guidebook, the bar has poured more of these addictive pick-me-up drinks than any other bar in the world, and ordering one has become a San Francisco must-do.
The Buena Vista’s Web site offers step-by-step instructions on how they make their Irish coffee.
1. Fill glass with very hot water to pre-heat, then empty.
2. Pour hot coffee into hot glass until it is about three-quarters full. Drop in two cocktail sugar cubes.
3. Stir until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved.
4. Add full jigger of Irish whiskey for proper taste and body.
5. Top with a collar of lightly whipped whipping cream by pouring gently over a spoon.
A selection of Irish whiskeys may be purchased at Dixie Liquor, located at 3429 M Street in Georgetown.