There are many holidays where drinking is encouraged—but there is only one drinking holiday, and that’s St Patrick’s Day. It’s a day when you can honestly say to your boss, “I need to leave early to drink.”
While there are many appropriate drinks for St. Paddy’s Day, none is more beloved than the Irish coffee. The history of the Irish coffee dates back to the 1940s and County Clare, Ireland, when chef Joe Sheridan would serve damp, cold guests a coffee mixed with whiskey and sugar, and topped with cream as they waited to board large seaplanes. That air-travel tradition continued, and in 1945, Sheridan’s Food Pub opened at the Shannon Airport, where they are still serving them today. This Irish airport staple enchanted a travel writer from the San Francisco Chronicle; he convinced the owners of the Buena Vista Café to re-create the Emerald Isle tipple; and the rest is history.
Reno has always needed the Irish Coffee; the fact that we are a 24-hour bar town keeps the expectation high that you can enjoy well-crafted Irish coffee at pretty much any bar in the city. But I wanted to know who had the best in (Mid)town, so I asked my best friend and non-bartender, Kalah O’Rear, to join me on a quest to evaluate some of Reno’s best Irish coffees.
Corrigan’s Lost Highway (1526 S. Wells Ave.): I love this bar; very few places in Reno feel like old Reno anymore, and Corrigan’s is a haven for those looking for a safe, clean dive bar. We started at Corrigan’s because I wanted to start somewhere without pretension—and that’s exactly what we got. Their Irish coffee features Jameson Irish Whiskey, a bar spoon of brown sugar, Magpie coffee and heavy whipping cream, with fresh nutmeg grated on top; it’s served in a tulip picon glass. While we’d find this same combination of ingredients at four of the six stops, Corrigan’s has more of a classic Reno feel than the others. More whiskey forward and strong, the Corrigan’s Irish coffee had a lighter brewed coffee and a kick to the chest that said, “Top of the mornin’ to you.” If you are looking for that classic Wells Avenue Irish coffee, Corrigan’s is the place for you.
40 Mile Saloon (1495 S. Virginia St.): For the uninitiated, 40 Mile is the adult equivalent of your favorite childhood clubhouse fort. A friendly face, an inside joke and a playful nature make 40 Mile feel warm and welcoming. Their Irish coffee tasted just like that—warm and welcoming. While the ingredients were the same as those at Corrigan’s, the attention to detail made this version a show-stopper. The ice-cold cream floated perfectly on top of expertly brewed Magpie coffee, and the sugar-to-whiskey combination was balanced with aplomb. Of all the Irish coffees we tasted, 40 Mile’s was the most picturesque and well-executed—day drunks notwithstanding.
Chapel Tavern (1099 S. Virginia St.): Most Irish coffees highlight one of the four elements of the drink: coffee, whiskey, cream and sugar. Chapel’s Irish coffee was a celebration of the whiskey, with all things prepared to accentuate the flavors of Jameson. At this stop, we realized that the first three stops had all featured not only Jameson, but also Magpie Coffee Roasters, which at this point should be named the Official Reno Irish Coffee Coffee by the city of Reno. Chapel Tavern brews their coffee with the intention of adding whiskey, which is a testament to the selection of the whiskey they lovingly curate. Their Irish coffee was bright and almost citrus-forward, using the coffee to bring out the bright and light flavors of the Jameson. If you are a whiskey lover, this is the Irish coffee for you.
The Hideout Lounge (240 Park St.): We live in a golden age of cocktails, where people are re-examining classic cocktails with new context and techniques. The Hideout’s Irish coffee is exactly that—an Irish coffee re-examined. They start with cold-brewed coffee, cinnamon brown sugar syrup, and Jameson Irish Whiskey—and hit it with an espresso steam wand to heat it. Then they delicately add cinnamon brown sugar cream to give you a thoughtful and precise flavor bomb. The Hideout Irish coffee is their best-selling cocktail; unlike the other Irish coffees we tasted, it can be served cold, which I love. It is not your father’s Irish coffee, but why does it have to be? A great drink can grow from a classic and become just as beloved.
Ceol Irish Pub (410 California Ave.): While a classic had inspired our previous stop, nothing is more classic than the Irish coffee at Ceol. At the new location on California Street, Ceol has made their new pub feel like it has been there for 100 years. Their Irish coffee was the only one served in a traditional Irish coffee glass—and the only one not to feature Jameson. Their coffee was bold and robust, the brown sugar delicate. I don’t often use the term “perfect” to describe drinks, but the cream they use at Ceol is perfect, and they know it—because they keep the recipe secret, and won’t even give it to bar-industry dorks like me. If you are looking for as close to the 1945 recipe as possible, look no further than Ceol.
Reno Public House (33 St. Lawrence Ave.): We finished our tour at Reno Public House, which brought our tour full circle back to the ingredients found at Corrigan’s, 40 Mile and Chapel. Public House’s use of these tools resulted in a balanced and drinkable cocktail, a blend of all the ideas we had tasted throughout the day. The busy bar hummed as we realized that each Irish coffee told the story of each bar in a way not many drinks do: If you are a dive bar, your drink will have a bit more kick; if you are a whiskey library, your drink will showcase the whiskey; and in the case of Public House, your drink will be a perfect middle ground of many inspired ideas. Like the bar, their Irish coffee is like a pair of your favorite boots, perfect for any occasion.
While we did not hit every bar in Reno that makes Irish coffee, we did get a snapshot sampling of our town’s fabulous bars and their versions of this classic drink. So get your friends together; put your walking shoes on; and stroll through whiskey, cream, coffee and sugar. You will not be disappointed.