A Bloodline to a Booze Legend
Irish Coffee in Foynes
What do flying boats and Irish Coffee have in common?
It’s a question that took me to Foynes, Ireland, tracing my roots. Alcohol addiction had killed my Irish great-grandfather; but apparently, a fondness for the drink was both a virtue and a vice amongst our clan. Our family tree also revealed a relation to Chef Joe Sheridan, the inventor of Irish Coffee.
A bloodline to a booze legend? Learning this, I was hooked.
But first, I had get to Foynes, a tiny, West Coast town, population 600. It may seem like a speck on the map, but Foynes was once the center of the aviation world. During World War II, Pan Am’s famous flying boats carried a diverse range of people, from celebrities (Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy) to refugees (Jewish children fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe). It’s here that commercial air travel was born, as well as Irish Coffee.
I almost drove past the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, tucked away at the roadside. Luckily, a giant Clipper plane outside tipped me off. Inside, there are a range of exhibits, as well as a replica B314 Flying Boat that you can board and explore.
It also has an exhibit about the story of Irish Coffee and a café that serves the hot drink. One of Foynes’ biggest claims to fame is that this drink was invented in the airport. One winter night in 1943, a Clipper departed from Foynes for Newfoundland, Canada. After battling bad weather for several hours, the captain returned to Foynes and unloaded a bunch of cranky passengers into the airport’s restaurant.
Chef Joe Sheridan decided to prepare something special to warm up the weary travelers. On a whim, he brewed dark, rich coffee, added in some Irish whiskey, a little brown sugar, and whipped cream on top of each cup. As the passengers lapped up the hot drink, one asked, “Is it Brazilian Coffee?”
“No,” Sheridan said. “That was Irish Coffee!”
And so an Irish classic was born. But Irish Coffee didn’t take off internationally until 1951, when a travel journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle had his first sip. Bewitched, Stanton Delaplane described the drink to the owner of the Buena Vista Café, Jack Koeppler. The two men stirred and sipped throughout the night, trying to re-create the recipe. But by gum, the cream refused to float and the taste wasn’t quite right. Plus, these experiments almost killed Delaplane: he nearly passed out on the cable car tracks, inebriated.
After more taste-tests and a visit to Ireland, the duo discovered that the cream floats when aged and frothed to a precise thickness. Nonetheless, they decided that another ingredient was necessary: Chef Sheridan himself. In 1952, Joe Sheridan joined the Buena Vista staff and immigrated to the United States.
The original recipe is still served at the Foynes Maritime Museum (as well as throughout Ireland). At the museum’s café, I watched as the barista spooned frothy cream atop my drink.
“You know, I’m related to Joe Sheridan,” I said proudly.
“Are you now?” she said, looking confused. “And you’re from Canada?”
“I am. But he was my great-grandfather’s cousin.”
The barista bundled the steaming drink in a napkin and set it on a coaster. “Well, then. I guess this one’s on us.”
So yes, I am related to a booze icon, Chef Joe Sheridan. And no, our family isn’t rolling in dough from his invention. But it’s satisfying to know that an ancestor gifted something to the world, even if it is just a hot drink on a cold night.