The Buena Vista, king of the Irish coffee

The Buena Vista Café
This venerable San Francisco outpost might not have invented the Irish coffee, but it certainly has perfected it over the years. Per the bar's lore, in the early 1950s the combined efforts of the former owner, a travel writer and the mayor of San Francisco, a dairy owner, resulted in the successful re-creation of the drink first created by Irish chef Joe Sheridan in 1943. Since then the bar has fine-tuned its method for cranking out these whiskey pick-me-ups at a staggering pace.

The bar gets its own shipping container of Tullamore Dew with each shipment of whiskey that arrives from Ireland. Once it arrives, their distributor holds these 18,000 liter batches while the bar goes through roughly 50 to 100 cases per week of 750 ml bottles. As a rule, they stay 100 cases ahead. Each bottle is emblazoned with the bar's name. Not surprisingly, The Buena Vista is Tullamore Dew's biggest customer. According to manager Larry Silva, San Francisco also is the biggest consumer of Irish whiskey in the world. Silva doesn't look at many resumes or job applications. “The last person I hired waited 10 years to get in,” he says. Once The Buena Vista hires someone, they tend to stay. Bartender Larry Nolan, who works behind the bar along with his brother Paul, are prime examples; Larry has worked at The Buena Vista for more than 40 years.

The manager here says he doesn't hire many people. How long have you bartended here? I used to be a bouncer. I turned down the gig at first. Finally I said yes. Forty years later …

What's the key to cranking out Irish coffees so quickly? When you've gotta make 20 to 35 at a time, you gotta get it over with as soon as possible and you're doing that all day. There's a method. When you line them up to be made, decaf is always to the left. Then no sugar. Then the regular ones.

The flow from the speed-pourers looks pretty generous. We came up with it years ago. When they switched from a cork stopper on speed pourers to all metal and plastic, the spout narrowed. Making drinks took forever. So now we pull out the metal tube in there and replace it with bar straw, it's wider. Sometimes you've got to make 10 to 20 at a time and you're doin' that all day, so you've got to get it over with as soon as possible. The whiskey has to pour quickly since we serve 1,800 to 2,000 Irish coffees per day.

That's amazing. The busiest day we've ever had was the Super Bowl in 1982, 49ers vs. Miami. My brother and I and one other bartender served 109 bottles of whiskey between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The night crew served another 104. There are 29 drinks per bottle. So that means we served well over 6,000 drinks that day [6,177 specifically]. There have been some other big ones, but that was the biggest.

What is the appeal of this drink, what makes it so famous? The key to drinking one — don't mix it. The cream stays cool on top and it mixes with the hot coffee in your mouth.

Irish Coffee

• Fill a glass with very hot water to preheat, then empty.

• Fill three-quarters of the glass with hot coffee and drop in 2 sugar cubes.

• Stir until sugar is dissolved.

• Add a jigger of Irish Whiskey (1.5 oz.)

• Top with a collar of 2 oz. whipped heavy cream by pouring it over the back of a spoon.

BAR DETAILS: 2765 Hyde St. • (415) 474-5044 •

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