THE 57th anniversary of the bond between Shannon and San Francisco, which was connected by an ocean of whiskey and coffee topped by foamy cream, took place on Tuesday.
It was 1952 and three characters of very different professions and backgrounds had little to occupy them in an otherwise lifeless bar on the San Francisco waterfront. There was only one other person on the premises and he witnessed a series of botched attempts at making Irish Coffee, which travel writer, Stan Delaplane had discovered two years earlier when he made the first of what would be countless calls at Shannon Airport.
With a readership counted in millions for his twice a week travel columns, which appeared in 45 newspapers across the USA, Stan was one of an elite press group that was flown to Rome to mark the Holy Year of 1950. But the Vatican-bound flight hit mechanical trouble over the Atlantic and made an unscheduled stop at Shannon.
In those years when an aircraft broke down, the trip broke down. So the plane and passengers spent some days at Shannon. The passengers were put up in the complex of chalets at ‘the camp’ and in the best journalist tradition, Stan went in search of a drink and a story. He got the two together when he was introduced to Irish coffee, which chef Joe Sheridan had created at the Foynes flying boat predecessor of the Atlantic gateway at Shannon. He carried back such pleasant memories of his Irish coffee that he regularly gave it a mention in his column, so much so that two years on, he was pressed into trying his hand at making it himself.
Stan had called into one of his regular haunts, the Buena Vista on Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco and the events of that night became part of San Francisco drinking lore.
Stan recalled, “The Buena Vista was kind of dying at the time and there were only three guys on the stools. There was me, Tom Rooney, who ran a sports and boat show, and down at the end of the bar a real drunk of a reporter, who would drink anything as long as it had liquor in it.”
With not a great deal to occupy them, the owner of the Buena Vista, Jack Koeppler asked Stan, “What’s that Irish coffee you’ve been writing about that you were served at Shannon Airport?” Stan replied, “Give me some Irish whiskey and I’ll show you”.
So began a series of initially vain attempts to follow the recipe that had been entrusted to Stan at Shannon. But various combinations and permutations of the formula fell flat. Or more exactly, the cream went flat. Their frustration was balanced out by the happy gratitude of the reporter at the end of the bar, who became the disposal unit for the rejected efforts.
As Stan recollected in later years, “We figured out that the cream in Ireland is heavier. Of course, the more sugar you put in it, the more lift it has. So Jack put the cream in the mixer for a couple of seconds, just enough to float it, which is the way they do it now. It wasn’t really whipped cream but at least it would stay up.”
Two years after Stan had first sampled Irish coffee at Shannon, it became an overnight sensation in San Francisco. People started coming into the Buena Vista and trying it. It would be years later that Stan would write about the Buena Vista but the taste for Irish coffee simply took off. While the bar had been in serious decline the night they cracked the correct way of making it, afterwards the bar became the ‘in’ place.
“Pretty soon you had cars outside, mink coats coming in after the theatre and things like that,” Stan recalled.
Buena Vista owner, Jack Koeppler became a champion of the Irish coffee drink and in Stan’s words “regarded this as a holy war of some sort”. With 20 Irish coffees at a time being lined up on the bar counter to meet demand, Jack left the running of the Buena Vista to his partner, George Freeberg, and took off on promotional crusades.
“He went up to Reno and made Irish coffee for gambling joints there,” Stan recorded.
At the Buena Vista, an Irish Coffee Club was established, with Stan as founder and chief inspector and chef Joe Sheridan installed as chief inspector in Ireland. Membership cards were issued to more than a hundred supporters.
Sipping an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista became a ‘must do’ experience, along with a streetcar ride, for any visitor to San Francisco. The bar became the toast of the Irish distilling industry. Before Irish coffees, the bar ordered in 12 cases of Irish whiskey a year. Once Irish coffee fever took hold, yearly consumption soon soared to 1,200 cases. Such was the impact on sales of Irish whiskey in the United States that the Irish Export Board sent an emissary to San Francisco in 1957 to credit Stan with the steep rise in Irish whiskey sales, which in the first seven months of that year were equal to the total 1955 sales.
It was a major boost for Irish exports, as Irish whiskey sales of around $300,000 a year were straggling way behind Scotch, with sales of $87 million dollars. With such a massive gap, the Irish Export Board was only too willing to play up the story of how a newspaperman popularised Irish coffee.
Eventually, both ends of the Irish coffee story would be brought together, when chef Joe Sheridan, who had introduced the brew to Americans at Foynes in 1943, went to work in San Francisco. He had been lured away from Shannon Airport by Trans Canada Airlines, which hired him as head chef for its Toronto Airport restaurant. He was to spend part of a nomadic career as chef at Tiny’s Waffle Restaurant in the city where his Irish coffee was immortalised and sold up to 2,000 glasses per day at the height of its popularity at the Buena Vista.
Irish coffee and Stanton Delaplane were made for each other. The tale behind Irish coffee provided an instant hook on which a journalist could hang a story and the Irish roots of the story made it the ideal vehicle for blarney and spinning a good yarn.