John V. Kelligher
Professor of Irish Studies at Harvard
Proprietor of Dublin's Dolphin Hotel
How it All Began!
Over the decades there has been much debate and controversy about the origins of Irish Coffee. Some people believe that the creator was Joe Jackson of Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Others believe that the originator was Joe Sheridan, the Tyrone-born chef, who worked in Brendan O’Regan’s Restaurant & Coffee Shop in Foynes, County Limerick. Some people attest it was Michael Nugent, the innovative proprietor of 35 - 37 East Essex Street in Temple Bar, Dublin now known as Bad Bobs and The Dolphin Hotel?
The Story of Irish Coffee The traditional storyline goes that Foynes, which in the 1930s and 40s existed as the ‘Flying Boat’ hub between Europe and the United States, engaged in a prestigious world of hospitality to entertain the wealthy American and Canadian passengers who travelled across the Atlantic. During the winter of 1943 an American Airlines flight bound for New York via Botwood, Newfoundland, returned to the base at Foynes owing to inclement weather and hazardous flying conditions. The passengers disembarked frightened, fatigued and frozen, requesting warm food and restorative drink. It was at this point that Joe Sheridan secured his moment of fame and earned his place in the history of world liqueurs by serving Irish Coffees to the stricken passengers. When one passenger queried: “Is this Brazilian Coffee?” Joe Sheridan is reputed to have replied: “No, this is Irish Coffee.”
Where did Sheridan’s creation originate? History records that from that night onwards Irish Coffee has grown in acclaim and popularity across the globe. Joe Sheridan has been widely acclaimed as the originator of the Irish Coffee. But where did Joe Sheridan get the inspiration, and where did it really start?
The Sheridan Story Nineteen-year-old Joe Sheridan moved from his native Tyrone to Dublin with his mother, father and his five siblings in 1928. He soon secured work as a trainee chef in Pims Department Store, nos. 72-75 South Great Georges St., the gigantic five-storey building founded by the Pim brothers, of Quaker entrepreneurial vision, in the 1850s. It was at Pims Department Store that Joe learned the elementary skills of culinary cuisine but it was to Dublin’s most famous restaurant, The Dolphin Hotel, owned by Michael Nugent, that Joe had a particular affinity. Here at The Dolphin Hotel while working for Michael Nugent, Sheridan acquired the exquisite artistry and refined skills of upmarket cuisine.
Michael Nugent Serves Irish Coffee The Dolphin Hotel Restaurant, under the ownership of Michael Nugent, who ran a wholesale wine, spirit and grocery business from Bad Bobs was for many decades Dublin’s most famous restaurant attracting the cream of Dublin’s merchant and financial classes. It was also the much-favoured culinary haven of the broad international contingent visiting Dublin in addition to the famous global orchestras who played in Dublin theatres. This was definitively Dublin’s premier cocktail outlet where all the latest drinks were served including the new wave of exotic beverages that had emanated from the United States post prohibition.
But Michael Nugent was himself a liqueur creator and blender of the first magnitude. In particular he liked to experiment with coffee flavoured liqueurs which came from the large wholesale stocks of coffee stored in the cellars underneath the premises of Bad Bobs. Many visitors to this premises (Bad Bobs) and the nearby Dolphin Hotel savoured Michael Nugent’s Whiskey Coffee (Irish Coffee) during the early years of the Second World War. (Many notable sources including leading US academic John V. Kelleher and sources within the Dublin Historical Records attest to this fact.)
The contrarian account can be found buried in an essay by John V. Kelleher, professor of Irish studies at Harvard from 1952 to 1986. Just after World War II, Kelleher visited Ireland and some literary pals took him to the pub at a hotel called The Dolphin in Dublin's Temple Bar neighborhood. "The Dolphin, I was told, was where Irish coffee had been invented," Kelleher wrote later. "The proprietor, Michael Nugent, had concocted it during the war as a way of disguising what was then called coffee. In 1946 its chief merit was the interesting difficulty of floating the cream onto but not into the liquid."
Joe Sheridan, Michael Nugent’s & Irish Coffee So when the passengers disembarked from the aborted American Airlines flight at Foynes in 1943 looking for sustenance, Joe Sheridan turned to a familiar Coffee Whiskey recipe that he had learned and borrowed from Michael Nugent. But while the reputation of serving the Irish Coffee rests with Joe Sheridan, it was here in Michael Nugents Dolphin Hotel & Bad Bobs that the Irish Coffee was first invented. The reason to credit the claim centered on the Dolphin Hotel & Bad Bobs. John V. Kelleher was a serious scholar and unlikely to cite any and every bit of self-promotion floated by a publican. Beyond that, the story is credible. Think about the Foynes/Shannon Airport version: If you were trying to warm up chilled passengers by spiking coffee, wouldn't a rather traditional approach of dropping in some sugar and whiskey be enough to do the trick? But if you were also trying to mask the taste of dreadful wartime coffee, you might go the extra distance and dress it up with a thick layer of cream on top. Then there's the timeline: Sheridan is said to have invented Irish Coffee soon after taking his new job at the airport in 1942. But before he went to Foynes, Sheridan worked at the Dolphin Hotel. Sheridan would have had ample opportunity to sample Nugent's creation.
There's one last reason to prefer the revisionist version focused on the Dolphin Hotel & Bad Bobs. If the airport is really where Irish Coffee got its start, then the drink isn't much more Gaelic than, say, French toast is Gallic. Yes, it uses key local ingredients -- whiskey and cream. And if made correctly, Irish Coffee has an uncanny visual resemblance to a well poured Guinness. But a concoction fashioned exclusively for international travelers isn't exactly Irish, at least not the way soda bread is. If Irish Coffee was indeed born at the Dolphin, a pub that was enough of a Dublin landmark to get a mention in "Ulysses" then the drink's Irish bona fides are unimpeachable. And though it is right to raise your glass in a toast to Joe Sheridan, you might want to offer a well deserved Slainte to Michael Nugent proprietor of Bad Bobs & The Dolphin Hotel while you're at it.