In the northeast corner of the peninsula, about a mile west of the boisterous sea lions and narrative capitalism of Pier 39, is a San Francisco institution called The Buena Vista.
The Buena Vista is a restaurant. Been there forever. The interior is warm, all in old wood, cozy without being small, and with fixtures so worn out over decades of service that their imperfections read like charm. It’s always packed from morning to night, and now I’m going to tell you that their popularity isn’t down to the food. It’s also not, despite the name, for the view – you can actually see a bit of the bay from the large windows that panel the north wall of the bar, but the defining feature of the view is the traffic on Beach St. And while you might catch a good-humored bartender, the service is mostly that kind of keen professionalism that you encounter at airports and tourist traps and all the other places they know they’ll always be busy, bit. it doesn’t matter how they treat you.
No, the reason tourists and locals move around Buena Vista like Macy’s at Christmas is the same reason bartenders’ white sleeves are stained brown up to the elbow: They have, for about 70 years, been serving quickly. and in good quantities what is widely regarded as the best Irish Coffee in the world.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, I would expect a little glimmer of skepticism to flutter in the back of your brain now. San Francisco always seems to congratulate itself on one thing or another, but the best Irish Coffee? Irish coffees are easy. You probably made one that you thought was pretty awesome. Maybe this has led you to believe that they can only get so good and that there really isn’t much to do. You would be wrong.
It is true that good Irish Coffee is within everyone’s reach, but it is also true that pushing the cocktail to be its best involves a series of specific steps which, according to tradition, were perfected by a skilled bartender. Shannon Irish International Airport. and presented to travel writer Stanton Delaplane, who returned to San Francisco to gift it to the Buena Vista in 1952.
The recipe is simple, as you might expect. The craziest thing is that the perfect Irish Coffee is almost entirely a question of technique. The ingredients don’t really matter. Irish Coffee is: coffee (obviously), Irish whiskey (again, obviously), sugar and heavy cream. At Buena Vista, they use a local coffee wholesaler, Tullamore DEW whiskey, with cubes of C&H whitened white sugar and grocery store cream. There is nothing fancy about it all, and yet, put together, Buena Vista Irish Coffee is exceptional, all so much greater than the sum of its parts that they are barely in the same postcode, all because of these three steps:
- Preheat the glass. Think of temperature as an ingredient. Hot coffee should already contain room temperature whiskey and cold cream. Asking it to use its own heat to also warm the glass will shoot the cocktail in the foot before the first sip is taken. No one likes lukewarm coffee, Irish or otherwise.
- Make him weak. I realize that’s not what you want to hear but the Buena Vista, with their little 6 oz. glass, uses approximately 1.25 oz. whiskey. Coffee doesn’t have the intense bittersweet effect of sour whiskey or even rum & coke; therefore, it can be easily exceeded. So keep the proportions in the recipe. And don’t worry, if you want more you can always have a second or third.
- Unsweetened whipped cream on top. This is the real secret, the stroke of genius. They come out of heavy cream straight from the carton and semi whip it (this can be done with a whisk or by shaking it for a few minutes in a closed container), breathing air into it but making sure it is still pourable. Then pour gently to layer the heavy cream on the coffee and drink it like that. Not only is the cold cream on top of hot coffee an incredibly nice juxtaposition, but the cream dampens the sweetness, looks amazing, and keeps alcohol vapors in the drink, preventing it from being too volatile.
There’s nothing quite like being there, of course, and they seem to know it: my favorite thing about the Buena Vista is that even though their whole empire is based on their Irish Coffee – they do. sold about 2,000 a day before the pandemic – they’ll happily give the recipe to whoever asks, a kind of convivial magnanimity reminiscent of old San Francisco. Doing them at home intensifies, rather than replaces, the urge to go. Try it out at home, then add it to the long to-do list, once things are right.
Built for a 6 oz. a glass. Evolve as needed.
- 1.25 ounce Irish whiskey
- 3.75 ounces hot coffee
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- Heavy cream
Whip or shake the heavy unsweetened cream until it’s thick but still pourable (if you have one of those protein shake whisks, this works especially well). Preheat the glass with hot water. Pour out the water and add the sugar and coffee to the glass, then stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the whiskey, then gently coat the cream over the liquid (you can use a spoon to layer, but if the cream is semi-whipped, this will not be necessary). Take a sip of the cold cream and rock your first time in San Francisco to have so much cool shit.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Irish whiskey: As mentioned, they use Tullamore DEW at Buena Vista, and it’s a great choice. Irish whiskey is sweet by nature, and this is one of its ideal instantiations. Jameson, Bushmills, Slaine, Proper No. 12 and really any other entry level Irish whiskey will all be excellent. Fuller and richer ones like the Redbreast 12 or the Busker Single Malt which I prefer to sip pure have a bit too much body for this drink – it would still taste great, but Irish Coffee really shines with the sweet blend of it. ‘basic set.
Coffee: If you make it yourself, use the coffee you like the most. If I was maximizing this to serve a larger group of people, I would choose a medium roast blend, something like Kona or South American. Avoid coffee that has the ash of too dark roasting or the sourness of too light roasting.
Sugar: Instincts might pull toward a richer sugar like demerara, turbinado, or even brown sugar, but in side-by-side comparisons, white sugar allows more brightness of the overall drink to shine. Coffee does not need help to be dark and rich, use simple white sugar for the best effect. Sugar cubes are actually a great choice.
Heavy cream: I realize that whipping cream is boring, but it’s not that hard and it really makes the drink drink. It has to be unsweetened, which is why he is cheating to get it out of a box. The quality of the cream will depend on its age and freshness. I’m sure some local farmers market produce would be amazing, but as mentioned you can buy it on 7/11 and it will still work great here.
Each week, bartender Jason O’Bryan prepares his favorite drinks for you. Discover his old cocktail recipes.