Warm-Up Cup

It’s hard to resist the fireworks of a Spanish coffee, but for home consumption, Irish coffee is just the thing.

By Tom Colligan May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

HOW DID IT ever come to pass that a working-class, Northwest river town abandoned the delight-fully utilitarian fog-cutter known as the Irish coffee for some flaming rum-and-Kahlua number? It began 32 years ago, when James Louie, then a bartender at Huber’s, swiped a recipe for “Spanish coffee” from the Fernwood Inn down in Milwaukie (now Amadeus Manor), and slowly honed it into the flashy, incendiary affair that lights up Huber’s once every 15 minutes. The drink soon became a favorite of two DJs from KINK FM, and after a few on-air plugs for their preferred after-work tipple, interest in the drink caught fire.

It certainly is a festive thing, our much-loved Spanish coffee, now served all across the city from Pirate’s Cove to 23Hoyt, but it’s hardly a drink that’s fit for in-home consumption. I mean, who keeps 151 in their house, anyway? Not to mention the requisite flameproof, heat-tempered glassware.

Irish coffee, on the other hand, requires little more than coffee and Irish whiskey—two items I’m damned certain to have on hand at all times—making it a most reliable companion. It’s also a superlative winter pick-me-up: The coffee and the whiskey form a perfect amalgam of warmth and alcoholic heat, rendered sublime by a complementary cap of cool whipped cream.

“People mostly order them around the holidays,” says Jim O’Boyle, head bartender at the stately Ringside Steakhouse bar on W Burnside, “but on any cold day, this really hits the spot.” O’Boyle derides frivolous ornaments like swirls of green crème de menthe or chocolate shavings that have, no doubt, sullied the drink’s reputation over the years. “We like to keep things simple here,” he says, while pouring the classic formulation—perfected, as the story goes, at San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café in 1952 from a travel writer’s vague recollection of a similar drink served at the Shannon Airport in Ireland.

Here’s how O’Boyle prepares his Irish coffee, moving with graceful efficiency behind the helmlike mahogany bar at the Ringside: Warm a mug with hot water. Dump the water out, and muddle a sugar cube (or two, if you prefer) in the bottom of the glass. Add a jigger (1 ½ oz) of Jameson Irish whiskey, then fill with coffee (O’Boyle says he uses Boyd’s French roast, but there’s no harm in utilizing your favorite brand of bean). Top with lightly whipped cream poured over the back of a spoon to keep both it and your wintertime spirits afloat.