Irish Coffee, Hold the Whiskey: 3 Riffs on a Classic Drink

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I have a lot of guilty pleasures, but one I've been indulging often recently has been Irish coffee. It doesn't have the perfect balance of a Daiquiri, or the complexity and depth of an Old Fashioned, but it has three things I love—coffee, booze, and whipped cream—and the combination works well enough to be deeply enjoyable on a cold night after a big meal. A classic Irish coffee is made, as the name suggests, with Irish whiskey, but the simplicity of the drink makes it ripe for variation. Use the same hot coffee, but swap the whiskey for another liquor and maybe tinker with the whipped cream just for fun, and you open up a world of possibilities.

I came up with a few new combinations recently that will add a little more fun and flavor to your after-dinner drinking.

Everything Nice: Spiced-Rum Coffee With Butterscotch Whipped Cream

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Spiced rum slips into a hot cup of coffee like a Jamaican bobsled team sliding down an icy track...which is to say, more smoothly than Irish whiskey. Its spiced flavor and sugarcane sweetness play off the coffee's roasted, bitter bite. On top, a heaping dollop of butterscotch whipped cream, which riffs a little bit on the rum, caramel, and dairy flavors of a classic rum raisin ice cream. To finish, a little fresh nutmeg grated on top plays up those spice notes.

My only challenge was making the butterscotch whipped cream. Thank god I work with Stella Parks, because she had an answer ready and waiting: Just whip some malted milk powder (such as Carnation, available everywhere) and dark brown sugar into the cream to simulate butterscotch's slow-cooked, sweet dairy flavor (a trick Stella uses in her quick butterscotch pudding recipe). It works like a charm, and it couldn't be easier. That whipped cream alone is so good, you'll want to put it on everything.

Just-Do-Ya: Hazelnut-Spiked Coffee With Chocolate Whipped Cream

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As every 90s-era coffee shop once knew, hazelnut and coffee are a winning combo. As every jar of Nutella reveals, hazelnut and chocolate are, too. And, as every chocolate-covered coffee bean attests, those two fermented and roasted beans are a match made in heaven. So why not put all three together? For the alcohol, that means Frangelico, a hazelnut-infused liqueur packaged in a bottle that looks a little too much like Mrs. Butterworth's syrup. For the whipped cream, it means a good dose of Dutch-process cocoa powder. Do I even need to say that it works? Of course it does! (For all you punners out there, the name of this drink is a pretty terrible play on gianduia, the real name of the Italian chocolate-and-hazelnut spread of which Nutella is just one mass-market version.)

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go: Fernet-Spiked Coffee With Lemon Whipped Cream

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I'll admit that this flavor combination is likely to find fewer fans. By no means does minty-bitter Fernet Branca have an easy-to-appreciate flavor, and its intensity gets cranked up when poured into a steaming cup of black coffee. If you are a lover of fernet, though, this one's for you.

Since I was already walking the edge of acceptability, I decided to go all in, multiplying the drink's strong medicinal kick by topping it with Stella's wonderfully perky lemon whipped cream. It's made by macerating lemon rinds with sugar to create a tangy syrup, then whipping that with cream. The result is a potent brew with loud, bright flavors that will send a jolt through your brain and your digestive tract, far more effectively than the caffeine or fernet could ever do alone.

That lemon flavor, by the way, is also a reference to the lemon peel sometimes served with a shot of espresso, despite the fact that any self-respecting Italian would sooner eat spaghetti from a can than drink a shot served that way. I don't care, though—the combination works in this drink. Not to mention the fact that whatever self-respect I had went out the window as soon as I started coming up with variations on Irish coffee.

As for the name...well, I'll let you figure it out. I'm still giggling about it.