I’ve posted something on this elsewhere, but it bears sharing here as well. When something is done so well that it represents a serious improvement on a classic, attention must be paid.
We stopped by the Raven & Rose restaurant in Portland for lunch not long ago. Neon Dave Shenaut, formerly peripatetic bartender who has settled in perfectly for a long gig at R&R and The Rookery Bar upstairs, was manning the bar for the lunch rush. Lucky us (although it also must be said that the entire crew is as savvy and well-trained as can be; they all unfailingly know their repertoire and execute it flawlessly).
Purely on a whim, and totally out of character for me, I ordered an Irish Coffee.
I rarely---and I mean rarely as in almost never---order Irish Coffee when dining or drinking out. It is such a glorious drink when done well, but so painfully rare is it to see one done well that I gave up hope long ago and just stopped ordering them. Disappointment can do that to a guy. I make better Irish Coffee at home.
As with any simple drink---a Manhattan, a Martini, a Negroni---success depends on using good ingredients and then combining them in a precise way.
Newsflash: a good Irish Coffee is not made by pouring cheap bottom-shelf Irish Whiskey in a cup of coffee, stirring in some sweetener and glopping up with a spray can of whipped cream. And it is most definitely not enhanced by adding some sort of syrup or caramel drizzle on top. I even had one served in a tall ice cream goblet, with Bailey’s Irish Cream mixed in and a maraschino cherry on top. That wasn’t an Irish Coffee, that was a tragedy.
The best classic Irish Coffee I ever had---and no, it wasn’t at the Buena Vista in San Francisco---was double-strength hot black coffee, muddled Demerara molasses brown sugar, Jameson 1780 and very lightly aerated heavy cream. It was the way it was made, though, that made it great: when the whiskey, brown sugar and strong coffee were ready, the bartender eased the heavy cream slowly over an inverted spoon so it rested gently on top of the coffee, not mixing with it. The entire idea of the Irish Coffee is to sip that pure sweet butterfat cream, then catch the sudden delicious jolt of heat, black coffee, malty-rich sugar and the bite of Irish whiskey all at once.
My gamble at the Raven & Rose wasn’t that much of a gamble. I had seen Shenaut make hot cocktails before and he has a knack for it. The bar also has established a sterling reputation for precisely made and beautifully executed drinks. So it was worth a plunge.
But what I got far exceeded my expectations. Shenaut uses good ingredients, he mixes them properly---but then goes a magnificent step further. Good Irish whiskey, Demerara sugar, heavy cream, all good. But instead of a regular brew, or even extra strong coffee, he uses a long espresso pull of Spella Italian Roast coffee.
When you take that first cautious sip there is all you expect in the rush of sensation---but more! The espresso richness comes through forcefully, with that characteristic brown crema curling up around the edges, crema on cream, chocolaty, smoky and slightly bitter and oily-rich, adding an entirely new layer to an already fantastic drink.
As a lovely final touch, Raven & Rose serves it up correctly, in a clear glass stemmed and handled cup…because a good part of the appreciation of an Irish Coffee is the visual, seeing that pure thick layer of cream floating on top of black coffee in a layered yin yang of contrast, with three glistening roasted coffee beans resting gently on the white foam.
It’s the best Irish Coffee I’ve had in the U.S. Better even than my own, which is pretty damned good.
What’s the best ever? That was in Ireland and it was the best…well, it was the best because I was in Dublin, just off O’Connell Street, and it was the end of a single glorious month spent wandering around one of the most beautiful and compelling places on the face of the earth, and my head was full of Borstal Boys and revolutions and I was drunk on Yeats and Joyce, O’Connor and O’Brien and O’Flaherty,. Guess you had to be there to know how good that particular Irish Coffee was.