The Past, Present, and Future of a Perfected Classic at The Buena Vista Cafe
If you’ve ever spent an early San Francisco afternoon with time to kill at The Buena Vista Cafe, you’ll know the true glory of their most coveted item, their famous Irish Coffee. Rows of twenty, even almost thirty, heated six-ounce glasses are lined across the bar top and precisely built from the bottom up. The drinkable legend that is The Buena Vista Irish Coffee was created with careful consideration of ingredients, close attention to detail, and masterful precision in mind, all to flourish in a demanding, high-volume environment.
Many great legends come along with a grandiose story, chock-full of trials and tribulations as to how the legend came to be. This story begins in November of 1952 with the owner at the time, Jack Koeppler, and international travel writer, Stanton Delaplane. Jack touched base with Stanton after enjoying a rather traditional Irish Coffee at Shannon Airport in Ireland, and shared that he basically wanted nothing more than to find his own special recipe for the classic. Stanton was immediately inspired. The two went straight to the drawing board, and even after much deliberation and painstaking experiments, several problems continued to arise. One, the flavor was off, and two, the cream wouldn’t float. No matter the troubles they faced, Jack persevered and even made a trip back to Ireland for another taste at Shannon Airport. After his return, it all began to come together with the selection of the perfect Irish Whiskey, Tullamore Dew. The problem of the cream however, was so troublesome, that it was finally taken to San Francisco’s mayor at the time, who was a prominent dairy owner. With the final blessing of a perfected heavy cream, the most exquisite Irish Coffee recipe was finally in their hands, and has since been served to generation after generation for over fifty years.
We sat down to chat with Buena Vista Cafe veteran and resident bartender, Paul Nolan, for the scoop on his experiences over the years at this lively, classic hotspot.
Where are you from originally, Paul?
“I was born in Berkley, CA and I grew up in Livermore, CA. I spent most of my life in the Bay Area except for two years going to graduate school in Canada and a year in New Orleans.
How did you end up working at The Buena Vista? And when?
“Well, I actually got a touch working in the bar in New Orleans. I was in a management training position working the in the beverage department and I did a little bit behind the bar there, but I started at the Buena Vista in 1973 as a doorman/bouncer. I had gone there when I was in college at Berkley. It was the place! It still is, I think. It’s old school, lots of fun, a great place to drink. I kept a connection with some of the people that worked there and when I finished school, I wasn’t doing anything, so I actually went over there looking for a job and got the job working the door. I did that for about a year, pretty solid, then I went to graduate school. Then I was working for Hyde Corporation in New Orleans, and they actually moved the whole company to Chicago back in the end of 1977. I wasn’t going anywhere with the company, I knew it, so I went up to the Buena Vista. I knew the owners, it was privately owned. They were nice folks, always really good people, and I asked if they had a job for me. They said, “Well, you can work behind the bar, it’s sort of like a sink or swim, we could give you about one month.” And I said to myself, “Oh okay, well, I’ll do that for a while, while I look for another job." And that was 40 years ago."
Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever served?
"I’m going to go back a long way here. There was an astronaut, he was a Rear Admiral, Alan Shepard. He would come in on a regular basis and have an Irish Coffee. We’d chat it up, he’d tell stories, the guy was quite interesting. But another time, funny story, it was a Saturday and I was really busy. I’m making like fifteen, sometimes twenty-five at a time. I mean, it’s busy. So the rack in front of me is full, it can hold 28 glasses. I can go further, but this way is really efficient. This guy and his wife sat in front of me, and he starts talking to me. I’m not even looking at the dude, I’m so busy. He’s asking me questions, we’re just getting along, and one of the waitresses comes up to me and asks me, “Hey, what are you and Ted Danson talking about?” I said, “Who?!” I looked up, and it was Ted Danson. I was just so busy with the drinks that it almost went right over my head. Then they had a couple of Irish Coffees and we had a great time."
If you could guess, about how many Irish coffees do you think you’ve made in your life?
“Well that’s a good question. Nobody really knows. I can tell you for almost the last forty years, I’ve worked the busiest station in the house and I make the most Irish Coffees at The Buena Vista. On, lets say, a good Saturday, we’ll run between two and three thousand Irish Coffees, and sometimes more than three quarters of that is daytime business. It’ll slow down at night now, where as many years ago, the night business was quite busy. So it sort of flip-flopped. We pour about a hundred bottles of Irish Whiskey on a busy day. So, in short, how many have I made? Put me at four million, give or take. That’s what I would guess, that’s got to be close.”
What makes the Irish Coffees at The Buena Vista stand out?
"The original recipe was slightly altered because of American's taste. The Irish sweetened it with brown sugar, but the Americans didn’t like it quite so sweet. Using a white sugar, we basically reinvented the drink. The cream, of course, is a little different than the cream in Ireland. But everything else is basically the same. A six ounce glass, Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, the correct amount of sugar, and a heavy whipping cream on top is how it’s made. The biggest mistake people make is the wrong sized glass. It just doesn’t work with anything more or less. You start with a great recipe, you’ve got a great whiskey, you’ve got very fresh ingredients, and you prepare the drink correctly."
Do you have a personal touch or technique with your drink-making that you use daily? Either for speed or consistency?
"I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I do it in a very efficient manner, and I’ll always slow it down for the cream at the end to get it exactly right. We also use a really good coffee, Peerless Coffee, a local roaster out of Oakland. They make a Medium Roast. You just want a medium roast for Irish Coffee. You should use the kind of coffee you’d usually have with breakfast."
Since I’m sure you’ve had your fill of Irish Coffees, what’s your go-to cocktail when you’re off the clock and enjoying yourself?
"When I was drinking, believe it or not, I would have great Irish Coffee, but I like old school drinks. I like drinks like an Old Fashioned or maybe a Manhattan, even a chilled Vodka Martini sort of cocktail. What I liked to have the most was Tullamore Dew, straight, and if they made a half-way decent Irish Coffee, and a lot places do in San Francisco, I’d have one. Thinking I’d try to get away from Irish Whiskey and Irish Coffees, it’s just the opposite. It just doesn't get old. Tullamore Dew is the Whiskey of choice for me. I’ve had a lot of other Irish Whiskies, but as a consistent whiskey goes, it’s very smooth and has a bit of sweetness to it. At least, thats how I describe it, and that’s what I enjoy."