Classic Irish Coffee

Irish coffee1

Popular legend has it that Irish Coffee was invented in San Francisco, but, of course, it was invented in Ireland at the Shannon Airport. Which was the first place transatlantic flights landed when planes started flying across the ocean, their destination being Ireland. I’m sure the trip took a lot longer than it does now. But it easy to see why the Irish Coffee was popularized 5000 miles away, although going to the source is the kind of adventure I’m always up for.

cows in Ireland

And when you’re in Ireland, and an honest-to goodness Irish lad, whose mum is a cheesemaker) offers you a drink, even if it’s barely 10:30 in the morning, one could reason that since it’s coffee-based, then it’s fine. Which I did. However when I saw that giant jug of Irish whiskey come out, and tasted my first sip, it was easy to see why Irish eyes are always smiling.

Mary Burns has been making cheeses at Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese for over thirty years, and is a love of a woman. We had dinner the first night I’d arrived, and I just wanted to give her a big hug. She’d told me about her cheeses, but also that she made Lullaby Milk, a high-melatonin milk that’s said to help sleep.

I guess when you start the day with an Irish Coffee, one might need to do chasers of sleep-inducing milk to get through the rest of the day. (Although their day likely begins around 4am, and if I had to wake up that early seven days a week, I’d be reaching for the Irish Coffee by noon, too.)

creamer Mary Ryan cheesemaker

I was so excited to see Mary’s cheesemaking operation and by the time we said goodbye a few days later, after I visited her home and dairy operation, I was ready to serve her with my adoption papers.

Yet Mary’s already got a son, who she may not want to part with since he’s responsible for the early morning milking of the cows for her cheeses and I am rather unpleasant in the early morning hours. When we got to her home a few minutes too early, the milk was resting, not quite ready to curdle for the cheese, which she said wasn’t so exciting (it’s likely like watching grass grow), so she invited us into her country home for a spot of tea, or coffee.

pouring coffee Ireland

At that moment, her son, Gerald, came bounding down the stairs, looking flushed from his morning milking duties—or a post-pulling nap, and offered up his famous Irish Coffee for me to try. For some reason, there were few other takers in the group. But since it was nearly 11am, and I desperately needed a bit of caffeine (plus I didn’t want to be rude, of course), I took Gerald up on his offer. And besides, I was still on Paris time, meaning that it was noon. So that makes it okay.

holy water Irish pour

So how does a true Irishman make a real Irish Coffee? It starts with Irish whiskey. A very big bottle of Irish whiskey. And once I saw him pour it into the glasses, filling each up halfway, I see why they buy the bottle in the handy 1/2 gallon size.

“No need to use the good stuff” he told us, when someone asked if the brand was that important. And I could see how easily one could move from a cheese house to the poor house with such a generous hand.

Irish coffee maker Irish coffee

Next up was the coffee. Although the coffee culture has hit Ireland and shops have opened in the towns and cities, in most homes I visited, instant coffee is still served. Which may be because Ireland has such a strong tea culture and coffee isn’t given much due. But for round two (I would recount what happened to round one, made with instant coffee, but I don’t remember), he went for plunger-style coffee, which was really much better.

After filling the glasses with the steaming coffee; and glasses are always used, never mugs—a small bowl of rich, whipped Irish cream was spooned over the top and formed a mousse-like seal, letting the coffee and whiskey warmly mingle underneath it all.

Irish woman with Irish coffee Irish cream

A few shavings of coffee beans, I think, got scraped over the top, and I was handed my second Irish Coffee, which was better than the first. So do whip that good Irish cream, and skip the instant coffee.

And if you don’t get it right the second time, you can try it a third time, until you get it right. And I speak from experience, if I remember (correctly).

Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese

Irish cheese

Mary Burns’ Duhallow cheese, is made right beside her charming home from milk that is produced by her own cows, even though it’s sold across Ireland, from small farmer’s markets to Costco. All the production takes place in a building the size of a basketball court, with clearly marked rooms for production, storage, ripening, and packaging.

Irish cow david in wellies

Dressed in green wellies and protective gear, we were led into a hot, steamy room, which smelled of dewy-soft curd, where the milk in the large stainless-steel tanks was finally ready to be broken up and separated.

breaking cheese curds

Even though some of the cheeses are sold on a large-scale basis, everything was done by hand (or shoulders, judging by all the scooping, draining, and lifting) and the slippery solids were scooped out and poured into round draining containers, where each is allowed to sit for four hours. It was hard to imagine the cottage cheese-like, firm curd eventually becoming a solid, creamy cheese. And if I hadn’t seen it myself, I might not have believed it when I touched the rubbery nubbins of milk curd for myself.

raking cheese curds lifting cheese curds

A metal press is placed on top of the curds and at first, there is a huge rush of liquids flowing out of the bottom.

cheese curds

Then it tapers off to a gentle trickle. The racks are stacked up and left to rest for four hours.

pressing cheese curds cheese wheels ripening

Once finished, the cheese rounds are unmolded, then brined briefly before being wheeled into another room and left to dry and ripen on open racks, until they’re ready for sale.

cheese pressing

After lunch, Mary brought out all her cheeses and we tried them. I wasn’t quite ready for yet another Irish coffee, but looking out at the cows grazing just nearby, where she gets the milk for her cheeses, I could certainly help myself to another slice of Irish cheese.

cheese wheels

I took a final walk around her farms, and came across this odd-looking barrel. When I asked Mary what it was for, hesitating briefly, “OOoo,” she said, with a bit of a chuckle, “that’s for teaching the young calves how to suckle.”


I didn’t ask if it could be rigged up at home, for perhaps serving drinking Irish Coffees in greater quantities, but I’d probably get some odd looks from my neighbors if they saw me wearing high rubber boots and wheeling it down the street. So I’d better stick with serving beverages in glasses.

Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese
Cork, Ireland

Related Posts and Links

Making Irish Butter

Sidecar Cocktails


Plum and Rhubarb Crisp

Coffee, Chocolate and Almond Milkshakes

Duhallow Cheese (Kerrygold)

Espresso Granita Affogato


  • September 20, 2010 10:31am

    I’m doing my PhD in Sociology at the moment, so I can firmly state that “mealtimes” and “appropriate foods for certain times of the day” is simply a social construction and we can all eat whatever we want whenever we want, because the only reason we don’t is becaused we’ve been socialised into thinking that doing so is deviant.

    In other words…. pass me the cheese. It’s 6:30pm in Australia and I want a wheel of cheese for dinner. Reply

  • Kelsey
    September 20, 2010 10:41am

    I just moved to Dublin from the US a few months ago, and as a regular reader of your blog I am so excited to see some posts about Ireland and Irish food. I am crossing my fingers that you’ll visit Dublin so I can read about your food finds in the capital city. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 10:50am

    You sound like you are enjoying your trip to Ireland :-) Ardrahan is a beautiful cheese – what a treat for you to see where it’s made. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 12:40pm

    Ah, my favorite cold weather drink. Delicious!
    Thanks for the beautiful pictures and stories. I always look forward to reading about your adventures. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 12:42pm

    Eu amo Irish Coffee!
    (I love Irish Coffee)
    :o) Reply

  • September 20, 2010 1:26pm

    You’re cutting quite the dashing figure in your Wellies! But, how will they go over back in Paris, I wonder…

    Lovely photos, as always. Now I want cheese for breakfast… Reply

  • September 20, 2010 1:48pm

    Merhaba ,blog çok güzel….. Reply

  • Jack
    September 20, 2010 2:57pm

    My boyfriend’s grandmother first cooks the whiskey in a pan and adds 3 spoonfuls of sugar for every glass to the pan. Not a huge fan of Irish whiskeys but to me the more sugar, the better. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 4:30pm

    Pictures of cheese-making remind me of my childhood fascination with World Book Encyclopedia’s entries on cheese and other fun stuff. On my last visit to Ireland (a long time ago) I remember that the cows seemed extraordinarily large, like cows from another planet….true? Does this farm export any cheese to U.S.? Reply

  • Margaret
    September 20, 2010 4:36pm

    Whipped cream heresy my dad would have turned in his grave lots of sugar and good heavy cream poured carefully on top … Enjoy Ireland Reply

  • September 20, 2010 5:43pm

    Got so much blog reading to catch up on!

    That Irish Coffee would fairly give you a boost in the morning! Reply

  • September 20, 2010 5:47pm

    Your pictures make me miss Ireland. I went there two years ago on vacation and loved every minute. Interestingly, my first Irish coffee was not in Ireland..I was a lot younger and visiting my dad’s friends in Australia. They all got together at a restaurant and talked and talked for hours. They were all older and nothing they talked about was interesting to me, I was bored out of my mind and I just remember nodding my head, smiling and trying not to fall asleep when the lovely lovely lovely waitress came up to me and asked if I’d like a coffee. I nodded yes and she looked me over and said “dear, would you like a coffee, or a Coffee?” Of course I picked the second one, and she brought me was a glass of “coffee with a bit of Irish in it”. I think I had three, but the rest of the evening was much more bearable. Oh, did I mention that I was 17 at the time? Reply

  • September 20, 2010 6:00pm

    I love Irish Coffeeeeeee!!! Reply

  • September 20, 2010 6:31pm

    David, just wanted to simply say that I love your blog. This story is such a lovely example of your enthusiasm about food and travel, which is what keeps me coming back, post after post after post. Thanks so much for sharing your adventures with us! Reply

  • September 20, 2010 6:51pm

    It was invented in San Francisco!! Mary Ann Singleton had them, which made her stay in the beautiful City by the Bay! :-) Reply

  • Deanna
    September 20, 2010 7:35pm

    The Irish coffee sounds perfect. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make it into a dessert, since I have an odd habit of turning drinks into desserts. I’ve been leaning toward some kind of pie. Or maybe ice cream. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 7:43pm

    I simply love your Ireland posts! It is so good to see people making great cheese still by hand. But I’m still wondering if you’re going to maybe try drinking a guiness and chasing it with that whiskey! Maybe following it up with some colcannon? Looks like a lovely trip, can’t wait to see more. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 8:03pm

    Enjoying your posts on Ireland. We recently got back from a week there. Didn’t have an Irish coffee, though. But, trust me, we made up for it in pints of the black stuff. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 8:05pm

    I’ve always wondered about the glass… why a glass and not a mug? I suppose putting that much alcohol in a pretty little teacup wouldn’t do. In any case, it looks wonderful at any time of day! Reply

  • September 20, 2010 8:06pm

    I second Hannah, plus, there is no such thing as a time not convenient to taste cheese :D.

    (I’m trying to see if there’s still that strange bug of your site closing my firefox window. Seems that I’m the only one having problems with this !) Reply

  • September 20, 2010 8:16pm

    Yay \o/ , no more bug. damn, those machines are pretty touchy sometimes :).

    i’ve seen dedicated glasses for irish coffee with an included glass straw (made in one piece with the glass) to sip the coffee/alcohol first from below. I’ve always wondered if they were traditionnal, but now I think that they were something custom made by/for the bar tenders :D. Reply

  • September 20, 2010 8:34pm

    How fun! The coffee looks great and I’m sure it tastes as good. With that for breakfast and Guinness as lunch, I’m starting to think to I should move to Ireland! Reply

  • September 21, 2010 12:34am

    Oh, wow! I could certainly use a proper Irish Coffee now–I’m salivating after your descriptions and those gorgeous photos! Reply

  • Wendy
    September 21, 2010 3:14am

    Your travel/food blogging is incredible. Fun, witty writing with amazing photos! This trip in particular is so excellent~Lebovitz at his best. Thank you! Reply

  • September 21, 2010 3:41am

    My Irish husband would love this; not so much because of the coffee but because of all the liquor that goes in it.

    Nisrine Reply

  • September 21, 2010 3:52am

    It looks just lovely! Love all the background info. Reply

  • Susan
    September 21, 2010 4:49am

    You do the most interesting things when you travel. How I envy you! Never been to Ireland, but would love to go. This is the kind of activity that I would enjoy as well. Reply

  • September 21, 2010 4:52am

    David, you look so fetching in your green wellies!

    I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Mary Ryan’s cheese while on culinary caravan through Ireland a few years back; how could anyone resist that beautiful honey-orange rind.

    For my Irish coffee only Bushmills will do.

    Another great post. Thanks, David. Reply

  • September 21, 2010 6:41am

    Your posts are the first things I read — as soon as I see them in my inbox. Your descriptions make me feel as if I’m right there with you, and the photos are always stunning. (What kind of camera do you use?) Carry on !!!

    Thanks! You can check out my post on Food Photography Gear to see what I use to take the photos here on the site. -dl Reply

  • September 21, 2010 7:30am

    I’m going to go ahead and third what Hannah said – and an Irish coffee, too, please! And it’s 10:30 p.m. here ;) Reply

  • September 21, 2010 8:34am

    Cheers! I do have to say-a true Irish coffee doesn’t require booze, indeed, it only requires coffee because there’s enough booze running through one’s veins the following morning… Reply

  • September 21, 2010 8:36am

    And if I do add the booze-only Jameson 12 will do. Reply

  • KateP
    September 21, 2010 10:57am

    Hello David – as a newcomer to your site I just wanted to pass on how much I am enjoying your writing – your recent New York posts were the first I read and I loved them – I have visited NYC twice and just love it so really enjoyed reading of your trip there – I also like the blend of cooking and travel and the little tips and insights you offer for the different places you visit……..thanks so much…. Reply

  • Audrey
    September 21, 2010 1:48pm

    I enjoyed seeing the picture of the ‘calfeteria’. Reply

  • September 21, 2010 3:21pm

    My grandfather was a dairy farmer. We weaned the calves by letting them suck on our milk-covered hands and then putting the hand closer and closer to a bucket of milk until they figured out how to drink directly from the bucket. But I never saw a machine to teach them how to suckle from the mama cow. I thought that came naturally. :) Reply

  • Marlene
    September 21, 2010 5:58pm

    This has been an fascinating series on Ireland. Going back to the butter one, I have on occasion used the Irish one you featured and discovered it tends to have a more spreadable consistency (and sweet!) even directly from the refrigerator – whereas Plugrá is always harder (imagine my surprise learning this one is not French-made, even though the name suggests it is) – my favorite that I used to be able to buy here in New England was a round, flat butter in a paper wrapper that – but, the store no longer carries it. It had tiny, sea salt crystal that made it absolutely fabulous.

    By the way, is it just my computer (Firefox) that has been crashing regularly when I click on the hot link to continue one of your features? Agggggh! I reported it today to Firefox, but is it the browser or something still not operating smoothly with your new behind-the-scenes site changes?

    It’s one of the things we are working on fixing, any crashes, and hope to have things running smoothly again as soon as possible. Thanks! -dl Reply

  • September 21, 2010 6:20pm

    David, I absolutely love your blog, you have a great sense of humor and obviously a great passion for all things edible. Reply

  • Sini
    September 22, 2010 7:03am

    It’s barely 8am and I’m craving for a nice glass of Irish Coffee. That if something is a compliment for your great posts! Enjoy your time in Ireland. Would love to visit it myself.

    The red sucking barrel was awesome! ;) I love cows. As a kid I always visited a little dairy farm in the near of our summer cottage (we here in Finland traditionally have a summer cottage at a lake outside the city). The little calves were ofcourse the highlight. Really miss those days… Reply

  • Brian
    September 22, 2010 9:11am

    Hi David – I have been reading your blog through my Google Reader for months now, and I have come to look forward to your posts. Very clever writing, and the pictures are always beautiful! What kind of camera and lens to you typically use for your food/drink pcs? How do they come out so wonderful all the time?

    And what was the deal with the Holy Water? I was hoping not to read that they used it for the coffee! :) Reply

  • September 22, 2010 2:14pm
    David Lebovitz

    Hi Brian: I did a post on My food photography gear which explains a lot. They weren’t making coffee with the holy water, but I liked the bottle! Reply

  • September 23, 2010 7:01pm

    I was curious about the holy water, too. lol. Irish coffee has be one of my top 3 favorite drinks. I love how the gentleman you were with said not to fuss about the brand. Thanks for sharing the cheesemaking process – very interesting. Beautiful photos. I’m revisiting my memories of Ireland. Reply

  • September 24, 2010 8:53am

    Kudos on a charming post! It was an enormous pleasure to read–thank you for sharing. Reply

  • Michael
    October 5, 2010 5:59pm

    Irish Coffee was invented not at Shannon airport, but at the Foynes Sea plane base that was across the Shannon River from the airports current location. The local bartender created Irish coffee one frigid night when passengers had be just brought in from a Sea Plane and needed to warm up.

    It was popular at Shannon Airport when it was built after the war.

    It became sensational when San Francisco Travel writer Stanton Delaplane wrote about it when he was in Ireland and then almost died helping the bartender at the Buena Vista perfect the recipe. In San Francisco it became world famous. Reply

  • Sarah
    October 12, 2010 1:45am

    Had a severe moment of jealously. That never happens to me! Now I’m looking for flights to Ireland. Reply

  • cath howard, brisbane, australia (NOT Oz)
    October 19, 2010 11:47pm

    OMG You continually crack me up David. I’m having my morning coffee – before I go and take a pick axe to the soil in the garden – and you’ve given me fortitude!!! Hilarious. (I thoroughly enjoyed your book too btw).
    Yeah_Mama Reply

  • Amy
    October 25, 2010 10:21pm

    In your photo above, the cheese is being shaped and pressed in plastic containers. Is this typical?

    I’ve been reading your blog for the past month (fyi, I’ve read all the cheese posts). Thanks for providing me with hours of enjoyable reading. ;) Reply

  • October 25, 2010 10:25pm
    David Lebovitz

    Yes, I believe it is standard now to use plastic and is likely an European Union directive. Reply

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