For Nancy, with love and squalor
“…[N]ations flower swiftly once their genius has budded. Look, for instance, at the Irish, for many centuries a breed of half-naked cave dwellers sunk in ignorance and sin and somewhat given to contentiousness. Then the gentle, learned St. Patrick appeared among them. He taught them to make usquebaugh and at once they became the most cultured people in the world. No one challenged their supremacy, certainly the Scotch didn’t, till inspiration crossed the Atlantic and set up a still in Pennsylvania.”
—Bernard DeVoto, The Hour, 1948
It’s late — actually, it’s turned to early, early on Saint Patrick’s Day — and Sid and Nancy are still here, as are a few others. Maybe it was Sid, or it could have been Nancy, but as dawn breaks one of them realizes the hour and the date: “Myers! We need Paddy’s Day cocktails!”
It’s a call to arms, so I pour a round of Irish whiskeys into clean-enough glasses.
“Down your necks!” I announce, raising my glass.
“No! We need Irish cock-tails,” simpers Nancy, turning the last word into two.
“There aren’t any,” I tell her.
Wordlessly, I raise my glass and in the uneasy silence that follows, we drink.
I admit, I may have overstated the absolute paucity of historical Irish cocktails, but the Land of Forgotten Cocktails can be a lousy place to spend St. Patrick’s Day if you’re bent on drinking cocktails that can trace their heritage back to Hibernia. Historically, there seems to be no impulse among the Irish to mix drinks. They have no reason to: they make good whiskey, a soft whiskey that soothes on its own without the need for ameliorating adulterants like sugar or bitters or wine or fruit.
It’s a matter of faith among the Irish — and it’s most likely true — that European distilling started there, that the technology was brought back from the Arabian East by a returning Crusader or some other unthanked itinerant. The Irish called their fire-water uisce beatha (ish’ke-ba-ha) or “water of life,” as did the Scots. (Later, the French would call their brandies eau-de-vie and the Scandinavians would call their vodka-like spirit aquavit.) English troops in Ireland simplified and mangled the pronunciation into the single word: whiskey.
There are few Irish whiskey–based cocktails in the cocktail cannon for the opposite reason that there are few Scotch whisky drinks. Whereas the smoky, peaty flavors of Scotch can overpower a drink, the softness of Irish whiskey can easily get lost in it. The Celtic and the British join together, however, in Cameron’s Kick, a drink that (to my research, at least) first appears in the Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930. It’s a strange combination of Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, lemon juice and Orgeat, a French almond-flavored syrup. You’ll want to stick with a blended Scotch for this one, as the smokier single malts will tempt you to add more Orgeat. This way danger lies.
The Blackthorne comes in a couple of shades, one built upon a sloe-gin base and the other (and, I think, the older) being an Irish whiskey version that appears in Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual of about 1900. His recipe disappears from the American literature almost entirely, only to be rediscovered by authors of English bar guides around 1920. This is a fiendishly delicate tipple and you’ll want to find a fairly robust, yet neutral, whiskey for this one. Clontarf single malt doesn’t quite cut it, and something like Black Bush would overwhelm. It’s an uneasy truce, worthy of a George Mitchell award if you can pull it off, and I find the addition of a wee bit (a drop or two) of Regans’ Orange Bitters helps get the parties to the bargaining table.
The delicate balancing act required when using Irish whiskey in cocktails is well demonstrated by our good friend David Wondrich’s creation, Weeski. “If whiskey were French,” he writes in Killer Cocktails, “this is my interpretation of what it would taste like — suave, subtle, and utterly untrustworthy.”
Trust is a hard-earned commodity where Irish Coffee is concerned, and most of the drinks that wear the crown are mere pretenders to the throne. Half the time what arrives is as garish as a Mardi Gras float, while other times your Irish Coffee arrives afflicted with a Bailey’s-induced anemia.
Irish Coffee is a noble thing, elegant in its austerity, with a built-in wink of the eye. And it’s just about the only living cocktail that can stake a claim as a true Son of Hibernia.
Joe Sheridan was the bartender at the Shannon airport after the Second World War, when trans-Atlantic air travel was in its infancy. To fly from the States to continental Europe, travelers would have to deplane during refueling stops, usually in Greenland and Ireland. To warm and perk up his weary American guests, Joe took the traditional “whiskey and tay” and altered it for his new clientele. Instead of tea, he used coffee, added a little sugar, and crowned the drink with a collar of lightly whipped cream. He dispensed with the mug and served his concoction in a stemmed glass. It looked a whole lot like a Guinness, the true “Irish Coffee.”
It’s not served with straws or a spoon — drinking the hot-laced coffee through the cold cream froth is where the real joy of this drink lives.
1/3 Irish whiskey
1/3 Scotch whisky
1/6 Lemon juice
Shake with ice until well chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange or lemon.
1 ounce Irish whiskey
1 ounce dry vermouth
3 dashes absinthe
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice until well chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
2 ounces Irish whiskey
1 ounce Lillet
1 teaspoon Cointreau
2 dashes orange bitters
Shake with ice until well chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Joe Sheridan’s Authentic Recipe for Irish Coffee
Into a stemmed glass, put two teaspoonfuls of sugar, preferably brown; add on a third, by volume, Irish whiskey and two thirds really hot, really strong black coffee, preferably fresh, not instant. The glass should be filled with this mixture to within half an inch of the brim. Stir well to ensure all the sugar is dissolved and then, without stirring, carefully float over the back of a spoon a collar of lightly whipped cream, so the cream floats on top of the coffee and whiskey.
— John Myers