A Tip o' the Cup to Irish Coffee

A Tip o' the Cup to Irish Coffee
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
A Tip o' the Cup to Irish Coffee
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Sixty-six years ago, two friends in San Francisco were on the cusp of replicating -- and refining -- a drink they’d first tasted at Shannon International Airport. It was called Irish coffee.

Its origins are uncertain, but according to Irish lore (which is the best kind), on a cold winter night in 1942, a Pan Am flight departed Foynes Air Base -- the airfield in the West of Ireland that predated Shannon -- en route to Newfoundland and New York. Encountering bad weather, however, the pilot turned the plane around and headed back to Ireland.

Airports had head chefs in those days and at Foynes his name was Joe Sheridan. When the shaken passengers returned to his airport, Sheridan served them warm sandwiches along with a concoction he brewed that night: dark rich coffee, spiked with Irish whiskey, laced with brown sugar, and topped with whipped cream.

It was a hit, so Sheridan began serving it regularly, even when he moved to the big new airport that replaced Foynes. Among those who tasted it while passing through Shannon was San Francisco Chronicle travel writer Stanton Delaplane. One night while drinking at the Buena Vista, a Hyde Street bar overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf, Delaplane and Jack Koeppler, the bar’s owner, started experimenting on their own. Delaplane had some kind of recipe for Irish coffee, but they couldn’t get it quite right.

Eventually Koeppler would go to Shannon to learn Sheridan’s secrets. Even then, though, they needed one last tip before perfecting it. It came from a San Francisco politician.

* * *

It sounds like a simple drink, but in the early 1950s, the San Francisco foodies trying to re-create Irish coffee had one last hurdle. They’d tinkered with whether to use brown sugar or white sugar, and they’d settled on the type of coffee and brand of whiskey they liked. But they couldn’t quite get the cream to work. Instead of floating, it sank to the bottom.

As it happened, San Francisco’s mayor, a moderate Republican named George Christopher, owned a dairy in the city. So they asked Hizzoner if he had any tips. He did: Age the cream for 48 hours and froth it sufficiently to give it consistency. A new tradition was born.

The Buena Vista’s iconic version of Irish coffee would become the American version. Like Mayor Christopher himself (he was born in Greece), it was created in Europe and perfected in the United States.

Not that George Christopher always had perfect judgment. He had his sights on Sacramento and in the mid-1960s decided to run for governor. The year he chose to run was 1966, meaning that his main competition in the Republican primary was an Irish-American movie actor whom many California political experts thought would be easy to beat. He wasn’t. On Tuesday, 52 years after Ronald Reagan was elected governor, a former San Francisco mayor did become governor of the Golden State. His name is Gavin Newsom. Like Reagan, he is of Irish extraction on his father’s side. Like George Christopher, he’s had a hand in the food industry, operating successful restaurants, bars, and wineries.

Gavin’s father is an old friend of mine, so I’m biased, but the cream just doesn’t always rise to the top. In mixology as in politics, it takes hard work. The luck o’ the Irish doesn’t hurt, either. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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