Seeking scrumptious Irish coffee and a feeling of wakeful inebriation
Mary bet me a dollar that I wouldn’t stand on the pool table and retrieve a large, green leprechaun hat from its post on a ceiling fan blade. I won the bet. It was a cold, wet November night. It was not at all like summer. Clouds hung low in the sky, magnifying the yellow, three-quarters moon—making it look as bleary as the droopy eyelid of an old drunk man.
The idea of a drunken moon seemed romantic until, in the clatter of an Irish pub, I was reminded of the effects of alcohol on some of those who are aged and male. My friend Mary and I had gone in search that night for Irish coffee. Really good Irish coffee. First, we went to Foley’s Irish Pub and took the last remaining table.
“Hey,” said Jolly Much-Older-Than-We Guy No. 1, who sat at the table next to us. “Have you girls ever been to Oklahoma?”
I made the mistake of admitting I had lived there for a short while in my youth, which Jolly Much-Older-Than-We Guy No. 2 took as an open invitation to quiz my ability to identify small Oklahoma towns. These guys were Midwesterners passing through Reno for the night.
“Have you been to Taloga?”
“Do you girls want to come join us?”
We stayed at our table and ordered Irish coffee. I asked our waitress how it’s made. Whiskey, she said, with coffee, brown sugar and whole cream. I inquired, as instructed by RN&R Associate Editor and former bartender D. Brian Burghart, whether Foley’s serves Protestant or Catholic Irish coffee. Bushmills is “Protestant” whiskey, bottled in a Northern Ireland distillery, while Jameson is “Catholic,” distilled in the Irish Republic. Our waitress wasn’t sure of the coffee’s religious bent. She informed us that it’s made with Powers whiskey. Perhaps it has no faith.
The coffee came out in one of those mug-like glasses with a handle and stem. It was dark, with a silky white layer of cream on top. I took a delicate sip and felt myself slip back into the San Francisco night, remembering the time I first tried Irish coffee.
It was several weeks ago near Fisherman’s Wharf, at a place called the Buena Vista, a restaurant apparently renowned for its Irish coffee. I loved the sweet, rich wintry taste, and I loved even more the sensation I got—a warm, alert feeling of relaxation. It was like getting drunk and falling in love by a roaring fire. But the Buena Vista has legendary Irish coffee. Could Reno compete?
Foley’s makes a damn good Irish coffee. It’s velvety and strong and sweet, but not too sweet. When we left Foley’s, I was feeling pretty wide-awake, not all that tipsy. Mary and I met up with her friend Taylor, and we drove over to Shenanigan’s Old English Pub. It was here that my Irish coffee naïveté began to manifest itself. I asked our waitress for an Irish coffee, and she asked if I wanted the true, simple Irish coffee or the sweet Irish coffee.
“Not many people understand the difference,” she said.
“True” Irish coffee sounded like fun, but it turned out to be not at all in line with my idea of true Irish coffee, which is nice and pale and creamy. So I ended up trying both kinds: black coffee and Jameson whiskey in a mug, which was hot and strong and lively, and black coffee, Jameson whiskey and Bailey’s, also in a mug, which was feminine and sweet, but still lively. And Catholic. I felt such a wonderful jolt from the plain coffee/whiskey concoction that I’ve been half-tempted to drink it in the mornings. But I know better.
Taylor called it “wide-awake drunk.”
Our next stop was Mr. O’s. Our bartender there was a jovial fellow who served up Irish coffee in the glass mug thing, same as Foley’s. Here it’s made with Powers whiskey and Bailey’s.
“Yeah,” he said. “True Irish coffee is made with brown sugar and whipped cream.”
I didn’t think to ask why Mr. O’s doesn’t keep it real. Maybe brown sugar and cream are tough to keep in stock. (The Associated Press Style Guide, by the way, defines Irish coffee as brewed coffee containing Irish whiskey, topped with cream or whipped cream.) This non-true Irish coffee wasn’t bad, if somewhat bland—not as boozy as Foley’s or even Shenanigan’s sweet Irish coffee and, with the absence of sugar, not particularly sweet. And I’m a sucker for that whole cream-on-top thing.
Mary and Taylor and I, along with my friends Jon and Sam, continued our pub crawl the next night, beginning at O’Shea’s Tavern on South Virginia Street. It was loud and smoky inside but not too crowded. The five of us took a table by the door.
And soon found that O’Shea’s serves Protestant Irish coffee. I watched as our bartender mixed Bushmills and sugar in a glass mug (not one with a stem at the bottom, but a big one), poured black coffee into the mix, and then topped it off with whipped cream. She used up the last of a can, then got out another can and topped the drink off with a second, generous cloud of white.
“That’s looking so much healthier,” our bartender said.
“That’s the biggest one yet,” Mary noted as I set my generously creamed concoction down. I stirred the cream in and drank. It was sweet. Real sweet, and not all that potent. And thinner—like hot chocolate made with water when you’re accustomed to hot chocolate made with milk. It was so sweet that I drank only half and gave the rest to Sam. Guns ‘n’ Roses played on the stereo, which propelled the five of us, all in our mid-20s, back into our preteen years.
Next we drove to Ryan’s Saloon on Wells Avenue. This is the sort of bar that has no windows. However, a sign outside alerts passers-by to the existence of Ryan’s Irish coffee, though it doesn’t make any promises as to the quality thereof. It was dark and dirty inside, but not in an altogether bad way. Peanut shells blanketed the floor, as if the bar owners believe that resistance to cleanliness is a charming novelty. And in fact, the floor did have an air of Seedy Biker Cool to it. Our petite blonde bartender served up Irish coffee using the same recipe as O’Shea’s: She stirred sugar into a whiskey, the brand of which I forgot to write down, poured in black coffee and topped it all with whipped cream. The coffee was served from an elderly-looking stainless steel Bunn automatic.
“It looks like this coffee is a lot more Irish,” Jon said, looking at the Bunn.
It was also a lot more cold. But not half-bad, aside from its blatant lack of warmth. We sat at a round table in the pool room, which was empty aside from us. “This room is dedicated to friends who have passed on,” the sign above the door read. And indeed, the names of friends who have passed on were etched into plaques hanging on the wall. My Irish coffee had that toxic, you-will-soon-get-a-headache flavor. Mary bet me a dollar that I wouldn’t stand on the pool table and retrieve a large, green leprechaun hat from its post on a ceiling fan blade. I won the bet.
We left Ryan’s sometime after midnight and walked the several cold blocks to Corrigan’s Bit O’ Ireland, shivering, and sat down at the bar. “Irish coffee,” I said to the bartender, a kind-looking and good-humored younger guy. “We’re out of coffee,” he said. “If you can wait, I’ll make a fresh pot.”
“Sure,” I said.
Not long after, the bartender set down a glass jar. The beverage was topped with whipped cream. Not the buoyant fluff of sugary, store-bought whipped cream; the thick, cold splotch of real whipped cream. I took a taste before stirring it into the coffee. Wonderful.
The Irish coffee itself was hot and strong—potent but not overwhelming, caffeinic but not bitter. And best of all, not too sweet. Unlike at O’Shea’s and Ryan’s, I could complete the drink. I even found myself wanting a second.
But it was late. I had to work the next morning. And I was already wide-awake drunk.