Sean Muldoon, who opened New York City's most decorated drinking den (that would be Downtown's The Dead Rabbit) three years ago, vividly recalls attending a seminar of Dale DeGroff's 16 years back at the now-defunct London Bar Show about none other than Irish coffee (see the recipe).
It began with the question, "How many of you have ever had an Irish coffee?"
Everybody in the audience raised their hands.
Then he asked, "How many of you have ever had an Irish coffee that you actually liked?"
Not a single hand was raised.
If I hadn't partaken of the iconic Irish coffee at San Francisco's Buena Vista Café, the platonic ideal of the drink, prepared a dozen at a time from dawn till dusk, with a view of the Bay in the perfect year-round climate for the cocktail, I would have dropped my hand, too.
DeGroff correctly pointed out that the recipe's preparation was typically an afterthought instead of a carefully constructed cocktail. The culprits? Burnt coffee, whipped cream from a can and oversize mugs. He professed the virtue of an Irish coffee prepared with two parts freshly brewed coffee to one part blended Irish whiskey, sweetened with demerara sugar and topped with runny whipped cream.
The whipped cream is key, as it provides a rich blanket that cools the coffee and brings the whiskey into focus. Whip it to peaks or apply it from a can, and it separates like the clouds from the sky on a sunny day, yielding a bitter, boozy brew. And about that coffee: Unless it's brewed fresh and poured out minutes later, à la Buena Vista, the acidity builds along with a burnt taste it acquires when heated via boilerplate.
Wanting to make the world's best Irish coffee, the Dead Rabbit bolstered its coffee program in January with espresso bar-quality grinders, new brewing equipment and more flavorful Indonesian Sumatra Mandheling beans from Brooklyn's Stone Street Coffee. To prevent it from burning and keep enough handy to pour up to 250 Irish coffees a day, the bartenders combine it with the demerara syrup and store it in a sous-vide bath calibrated to 77 degrees centigrade.
Another modern innovation involves aerating the cream in a protein drink shaker, which comes with a spring that helps whisk the cream effortlessly. The perfectly whipped cream (they prefer heavy cream between 33 and 40 percent fat content) can be poured directly from the canister, saving valuable time to prepare dozens of other drinks the bar offers from its award-winning menu.
In spite of the popularity of their Irish coffee, which Muldoon based off what he learned from DeGroff's seminar, he could tell by the look on DeGroff's face every time he ordered one at the bar that it didn't quite have his stamp of approval, so he invited him in to workshop the recipe. The new DeGroff-approved house recipe is prepared with a more concentrated demerara syrup and a quarter ounce less of Clontarf Irish whiskey, which they chose for its high grain content.
It turns out the culprit was a dusting of nutmeg, which DeGroff didn't (and still doesn't) believe has any place in an Irish coffee. The jury is still out among the bar's regulars, who made the Irish coffee the most popular drink in the cocktail world's most celebrated cocktail bar before DeGroff rejiggered the recipe.
To celebrate the partnership, the bar now retails one-pound bags of its coffee blend in a gorgeously designed bag tagged with DeGroff's recipe for $20 in the grocery.
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