Irish Coffee: The Winter Writer’s Choice

Phew. Went off the radar there for a while. Much of January and February was spent writing a draft of my book (I guess it’s safe to call it by its name now), The Crimson Sofa.

It got a little hairy at the end. After weeks of wrestling with the structure of the Morocco section (so many tiny details Morocco has!), I read a New Yorker story by John McPhee about his various strategies of organizing his stories. That provoked this:

scary mess
If you see a theme here that I’m not seeing, let me know, OK? I mean, a theme besides mentally disturbed.

It didn’t really work. The draft I turned in frayed at the end like a faulty piece of rope from which our hero has already plunged to his death. I’m trusting the solution will come to me.

So I took a break. I went to Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, where I savored a fine Irish coffee at Brennan’s in Berkeley.

The nice thing about San Francisco is that Irish coffee is a year-round drink, not just a St. Patrick’s Day thing. This is likely due to the climate and lack of central heating. Irish coffee warms the insides when you need it most–like, say, July.

My father, Patrick O’Neill (so right there you know he’s qualified to judge), has strong opinions about Irish coffee.

First of all, the glass has to be just right: tapered, so the cream stays in an even layer as you drink to the bottom.

Brennan's honcho says: These glasses were historically used for flips, before being adopted for Irish coffee.
Brennan’s honcho says: These glasses were historically used for flips, before being adopted for Irish coffee.

After a scare, they are now available again from Libbey, even retail. (Before, you had to buy them in cases of 36, which is how I came to have 24 and my father has 12.)

Then, the coffee has to be strong. And the sugar goes in the coffee, not in the cream.

Great for breakfast!
Sugar Duck approves of the Irish coffee recipe.

And the cream has to be thick, but not whipped stiff.

Brennan’s understands all this. The rest of the world does not always, and will sling you all kinds of crap (the world does this a lot; be vigilant).

So, in honor of St. Patrick, and my father Patrick, and what the heck, a book that’s still as drafty as a San Francisco Victorian…make yourself an Irish coffee today.

Mmm, creamy.
Mmm, creamy.
Irish Coffee, the Astoria Way
Don’t balk at the sugar. It helps support the cream on top.

For each glass:
1 tsp sugar
Glug Irish whiskey
1 tsp Greek Nescafe (or any euro-brand instant espresso)**
Heavy cream, whipped till thick

Pour boiling water in the glasses to heat them up while you get everything ready.

Rinse out each glass, add your sugar, whiskey and Nescafe, then fill with hot water till about a quarter inch below the rim. Gently spoon on the cream.

**OK, fine, if you don’t want to use Nescafe, then brew strong, un-fancy coffee (no top notes of grapefruit or leather or whatever) and fill the glass 2:1 coffee:whiskey, leaving about quarter inch at the top for cream.

Irish Coffee, the Brennan’s Way
Here’s Brennan’s advice, in video form. Watch it for the excellent justification of the use of non-fancy coffee.

And don’t fret about the manufacturing cream: its main asset (aside from being extra-creamy) is that it holds its peaks longer than regular cream. But you’re not running a bar where you need to keep the cream whipped all day. Are you?

Breakfast of champions.
Breakfast of champions.


  1. The Crimson Sofa? I love it. Can’t wait for the chance to read your stories, Zora. I’m glad to hear your off-the-radar time was fruitful, and, hey, now I’m glad to know a little more about the finer points of Irish-beverage glassware ; ) It was so lovely crossing paths with you in Beirut, and I wish you all the best for 2013 xx

  2. Zora says:

    Thanks, Bethany! Best wishes to you too for this year–any more big adventures planned? Great to see you’re still posting stories from your trip!

  3. Meg says:

    Awww… Brennan’s! I used to hang out there in the late 90s. They – at least then – advertised that they served “Thanksgiving every day!” so we would go there are get Thanksgiving dinner – turkey and all the fixings – at all times of the year. I have a lot of happy memories there. Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Zora says:

    They still do the Thanksgiving dinner! That’s my dad’s wife’s favorite order. She ate there a lot as a broke student/mom, when she could really only afford the turkey gravy, ladled over bread. So now she gets the full deal! We actually went there for Thanksgiving one year. I still got the corned beef, though.

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