POPSUGAR Celebrity

Make Irish Coffee the Buena Vista Cafe Way

Feb 16 2014 - 5:35am

After Guinness, the Irish coffee is quite possibly Ireland's most famous drink. This hot cocktail is a mixture of coffee, whiskey, sugar, and cream. It's famous thanks to the Buena Vista Cafe [1], a San Francisco establishment that perfected the recipe in 1952 and has since served countless glasses to thirsty bar-goers. I headed to the cafe to learn its signature technique for making this iconic drink. Here, bartender Paul Nolan, who's been behind the bar for 35 years and estimates he's poured between 3 and 4 million Irish coffees, teaches us how it's done.

Line the Glasses in a Row

The Buena Vista makes Irish coffees in batches; 28 glasses fit along its bar. When at home, select heat-proof, 6-ounce glasses, or purchase a pair of the classic Irish coffee glasses from the cafe [2].

Fill With Hot Water

Once the glasses are lined up, fill each one with steaming hot water. This warms the glass.

Add Two Sugar Cubes

Dump the hot water out, and add two sugar cubes.

Add Coffee

Now it's time to add the coffee. At Buena Vista, they use Peerless coffee [3] from Oakland, CA, but any strong hot coffee will do. According to Nolan, each glass "should be filled 3/4 full with coffee."

Level Coffee

When pouring the coffee, it can be hard to make the glassfuls even. If necessary, level out the coffee, so each glass has the same amount.

Stir to Dissolve

Use a small spoon to dissolve the sugar cubes in the coffee.

Add Whiskey

Next pour in the whiskey. Tullamore Dew [4] is the official whiskey of the cafe (the cafe serves the world's largest amount of Irish whiskey). Nolan uses 1 1/4-1 1/2 ounces of whiskey per coffee.

Whip the Cream

Although customers always think it's sweetened, nothing is added to Buena Vista's cream. It's simply lightly whipped heavy cream. It should be thick and frothy, but not stiff. Nolan's tried every home mixer and recommends a handheld mixer for the best whipped cream.

Add the Whipped Cream

Slowly pour the thickened cream over a spoon to create the collar on the Irish coffee. It should float on top of the whiskey-coffee mixture.


Irish coffees are truly a delicious treat. Sipping the warm, slightly sweetened whiskey-coffee through the cool cream is like drinking heaven. It's so good that on a busy day, The Buena Vista serves over 2,000 of them! Are you a fan of Irish coffee?

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