It’s not quite as renowned as the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Buena Vista Café has, since the 1880s, served fishermen, sailors, traders, and—more recently—tourists, who work or play along San Francisco’s fabled wharf. And whatever fame the watering hole and food establishment enjoys, it owes to an alcoholic beverage that was first introduced to Americans at its long, polished wood bar, more than 50 years ago.
Legend has it that on November 10, 1952, at what locals call the BV, travel writer Stanton Delaplane attempted to re-create a marvelous mixture of whiskey, coffee and cream that he’d experienced at the Shannon Airport with fellow war correspondents some ten years before. At Stan’s side, during this effort, was the Buena Vista’s owner, Jack Koeppler. It wasn’t until the next day, after much trial and error, that they finally produced a concoction which approximated the Irish Coffee that Delaplane remembered.
And it was the presence of a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, at the end of the bar, who kept saying “Heck, I’ll drink it,” that saved quarts of mis-mixed coffee and whiskey from being poured down the drain.
The effort to serve the perfect Irish Coffee to BV patrons continues.
Today, more than a half century later, the gifted BV bartenders, including Frank Silletti--who happens to be the world champion Irish Coffee maker--satisfy the curiosity and the thirst of local customers, not to mention those who arrive in San Francisco from all over the globe, and figure that as long as they’re here, they might as well discover what it’s like to drink a cup (or two) of the legendary beverage. By the calculations of Manager Michael Carden, nearly 35 million Irish Coffees have passed over the bar and across the lips of happy customers through the years.
By the way, it’s true—the business about being the world champion. In 2002, when the competition was last held, Silletti went to Foynes, Ireland to compete with talented mixers, all presenting their Irish Coffee creations to a panel of discriminating judges. When his drink was voted the best, Silletti became the first American ever to be named Irish Coffee World Champion.
For the record, the official competition ingredients include Powers Irish Whiskey and Bewleys Coffee.
As you might imagine, it takes skill, patience and inspiration to serve up the ideal Irish Coffee. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the recipe.
Part of the magic is getting the cream to float on top. That was the trick which Delaplane and Koeppler attempted to master back in ’52. (Some bar tenders claim the cream has to be fed a line of blarney so it’ll levitate and not sink to the bottom.)
Here’s another tip: Make sure to heat the glass with boiling water (then spill it out) before adding the ingredients.
Incidentally, the commemoration of that night in ’52 is honored annually, as it was this past November 10. We gathered at the BV, located for the past 99 years on the corner of Beach and Bay, across the street from the Cable Car turnaround, on that recent Thursday. And everyone not only had the chance to enjoy the Irish Coffee at its best, but we found ourselves in the midst of a full celebration—balloons and all. Then a bag pipe player showed up, sending a blend of plaintive and sprightly tones out of his instrument and into the air, where they lingered for a moment before dissipating into the cool fog of an autumn evening in the City by the Bay.
And in case you’re interested, here are the steps for making your own Irish Coffee. Start with a receptacle that has been pre-heated with very hot water. Fill the hot glass or cup three-quarters to the top with hot coffee. Drop in two sugar cubes. Now stir until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. A full jigger of Irish whiskey comes next. Finally, top with a collar of lightly whipped whipping cream. No. Don’t pour it on. Let it slide gently over a spoon and onto the top of the beverage.
You can try this at home, and you’ll probably enjoy the results. But to really appreciate the Irish Coffee, you probably ought to get over to the Buena Vista Café. When you arrive, you can ask for Frank, but all of the bartenders here have it down.
I know, because I tested every one, and I remember how successful they were.
I just don’t remember how I got home.