How Irish Coffee became an international hit

Over the years, there’s been much debate over who invented Irish coffee. A question mark hangs over the story of chef Joe Sheridan who is said to have invented the drink at Foynes Airport before emigrating to America.

Whether or not he was the first person to blend coffee, whiskey, sugar and cream is difficult to determine. But it’s clear that he played a big part in making the drink an international hit. 

Gaining fame at Foynes Airport

During World War II, Foynes Airport in Limerick was one of the biggest in Europe. At the time, passengers relied on flying boats for transatlantic trips. The idea being that if the weather was too rough or fuel began to run short, the plane could land safely in the water.

Once passengers landed on Ireland’s west coast, they could continue on to other European destinations. During the war, well-known names like Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt all passed through the airport.

Though the monstrous boats offered glamorous dining rooms and a full waiter service, flights could take up to 18 hours so passengers often arrived on the riverside dock cold, jet-lagged and, sometimes, traumatised.

It was here in the terminal building that Joe Sheridan listened to tales of the US as he served worn out travellers a warm drink with an Irish twist.

The story goes that late one winter night in 1943, a flight headed for New York returned to Foynes after battling rough weather for a number of hours. The captain sent a morse code message back to the control tower and airport staff were called back to work.

When passengers arrived, they were brought to the restaurant for a much-needed drink. The chef, Joe Sheridan, added whiskey to their coffee and it proved to be an instant hit.

A few weeks later, he presented the drink in a stemmed glass topped off with cream to Brendan O’Regan – the Catering Comptroller who was tasked with presenting the best of Ireland to the airport’s foreign visitors. He gave the blend his seal of approval and it was permanently added to the airport’s menu.

While many believe this is how the first Irish coffee came to be, some say it was actually invented in Dublin three years earlier. An essay by Harvard professor John V. Kelleher argues that Michael Nugent of the Dolphin Hotel in Temple Bar actually created the drink to mask the mucky taste of wartime coffee.

What can be said for certain is that by introducing the drink to the airport, Joe Sheridan brought it international attention.

The Irish coffee craze in America

Photograph of the beverage, 'Irish Coffee' in a glass

Years later travel journalist Stanton Delaplane became a big fan of Irish coffee, which he first came across at Shannon Airport in 1950. Then, in November 1952, nearly ten years after Joe Sheridan first began serving it, he tried to reinvent the drink at his local bar back in San Francisco.

At The Buena Vista, near the city’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf, he and bar owner Jack Koeppler tried without success to get it right. Despite copying what Delaplane had seen bartenders in Shannon, Dublin and Ennis do, the cream kept sinking to the bottom and the taste was never quite the same.

To mark St Patrick’s Day 1954, Delaplane recalled his experiments in a report for the Reno Evening Gazette:

“Irish coffee has become a noble experiment in San Francisco these days. I claim a modest share in this since I ruined a bottle of the best John Powers trying to make the cream float. For some reason the cream floats beautifully in Dublin. But for me in the States it sinks.”

While Delaplane moved on, The Buena Vista’s owner became obsessed with perfecting the drink and, according to its website, Koeppler even visited Shannon Airport to seek out the original recipe.

Today, the bar is famous for being the first in America to serve Irish coffee. This is another debatable claim, but The Buena Vista’s advertising campaigns secured its place in history and made Irish coffee its signature drink.

Soon after, the bar was serving 700 Irish coffees a day. By 1954, Time Magazine reported that Irish whiskey exports to the US were up 40% that year thanks to the craze kicked off by Delaplane and The Buena Vista. The sudden spike in demand even had Irish suppliers sending startled cables to ask what was going on.

Today, The Buena Vista still uses Joe Sheridan’s recipe to make its Irish coffees. According to a 2018 interview with the current owner, in normal times, the bar still goes through 100 bottles of Irish whiskey each day and serves up 250,000 Irish coffees annually.

A postcard from Shannon

As the Irish coffee craze took hold in the US, writer Stanton Delaplane found himself in Shannon Airport once again when a damaged fuel pump forced his flight from Frankfurt to New York to make an unexpected stop.

So the travel writer headed for the comfortable lounge, where maps of Ireland were displayed under the glass of each table. He ordered his usual Irish coffee and got to discussing the drink’s origins.

In his column ‘Postcard from Shannon’ published July 8th, 1954, he wrote: “‘A chef by the name of Joe Sheridan invented Gaelic Coffee,’ said the man at Shannon Airport.”

When Delaplane asked where Joe Sheridan was, the barman told him he went to Chicago to find his fortune. The last he had heard, Sheridan was working at Chicago’s airport as a chef.

Knowing this was a ‘dry’ airport, Delaplane thought of Sheridan being unable to create the “angelic brew” he had invented. But soon he would discover that this was exactly what Joe Sheridan wanted.

The story of Chef Sheridan

Black and White photograph of the Sheridan family (6 men and 1 woman - their mother) including Joe Sheridan

The Sheridan family, Joe – bottom right.

Born in 1909 near Castlederg in Tyrone, Joe Sheridan was one of six sons. After his father died, the family moved to Dublin where Joe got experience in catering.

In 1943, when Foynes Airport was opening its restaurant, he applied for a role as chef. According to the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, his application simply stated: “Dear Sir, I’m the man for the job. Yours sincerely, Joe Sheridan.”

Catering Comptroller Brendan O’Regan liked his confidence and, after an interview, offered him the job. When Foynes Airport closed in 1945, Chef Sheridan and the rest of the catering staff moved to the new airport located just a few miles away on the other side of the river estuary. Soon after, he emigrated to America.

Some reports say he moved to San Francisco in 1952 to take up a job at The Buena Vista. But Joe Sheridan had already emigrated. Time, which interviewed him in 1955, reported that he “Drifted to Canada, Hawaii and, finally by sheer coincidence, to San Francisco.”

He hadn’t yet found his fortune and, although he was offered a job behind the bar at The Buena Vista, he was doing his best to avoid alcohol. Instead, he worked as a chef at Tiny’s – an all-night waffle restaurant near Union Square.

He told the reporter: “Whisky and me, ’tis the sad truth, do not get along – whether it be in coffee or not.”

As it turns out, his much-disputed invention wasn’t just for shivering passengers in Foynes, it was also his own go-to hangover cure.

“But with all the vice presidents and the big people coming to Foynes for the celebrations, I floated the cream on top for the taste and the looks of it,” he told Delaplane afterward.

A lasting legacy, regardless of the truth

A promotional pamphlet about the origins of Irish coffee in Foynes

By 1955, Delaplane could no longer stand Irish coffee and Joe Sheridan was an AA member because of the impact his drinking habit had on his health and finances.

Despite this, Sheridan was proud of his legacy and always kept a clipping of the Delaplane column which named him as the inventor of Irish coffee stashed in a hidden pocket.

He carried it with him when he sailed out from San Francisco, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. As a member of the Seafarers International Union of North America, he took a chef’s job aboard a ship headed to the Pacific Islands. In July 1962, during this trip, he died at the age of 53 on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.

Writing for the Lowell Sun after his death, Delaplane noted: “It was his heart, I think”.

In the column, which he titled: ‘Late Joe Sheridan Invented Irish Coffee’, Delaplane once again states his belief that Sheridan invented the drink.

While he was alive, Sheridan was upset by those who said he hadn’t invented it and his former boss Brendan O’Regan regretted not speaking up for him at the time. So, after Sheridan’s death, he wrote to Delaplane in an attempt to set the record straight.

Joe Sheridan’s remains were brought back to California and buried at Oakland Cemetery just outside San Francisco. Two stones mark his grave, one of which reads:

“Here lies Joseph A. Sheridan The Master Chef from Shannon, Ireland who created for the world the treasure known as Irish coffee.”

Two plaques at The Buena Vista also mark his role in bringing Irish coffee to America.

EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum remembers hundreds of Irish emigrants, like Joe Sheridan, who left Ireland seeking a better life. Discover more stories with our virtual museum tour.

Header: Brendan O’Regan and Stanton Delaplane; The Flying Boat Museum.