Earlier this week, the Uppers and Downers Irish Coffee competition took place at Thalia Hall, roughly a half-mile off of the Pink Line in Pilsen, Chicago. Taking place in the moody, brick-lined and intimate Tack Room within the Thalia building, this event sets a tone for the main Uppers and Downers festival to follow this upcoming weekend. As opposed to the main hall upstairs, the Tack Room has a vintage-industrial vibe, lit with Edison bulbs and, thanks to a couple of power outages, candles.
Run by Michael Kiser, founder of Good Beer Hunting, and World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey, the U&D friendly was a relaxing delight, filled with a dizzying array of skillfully made drinks, music, and entertainment. Coffee competitions are known for high stakes, precision presentation, and rattled nerves, but not this one. As Morrissey put it, “A competition with coffee and whiskey becomes pretty relaxed. After even a drink, most people just come up to you saying, ‘Hey there, how ya doin’ man?’.”
Contenders created their own spin on the traditional Irish coffee utilizing two staples: Intelligentsia coffee and Teeling Irish Whiskey. Intelli’s coffee for the evening hails from Copacabana, Bolivia, and is marked as Anjilanaka—this is a blend of Caturra, Typica, and Catuai coffee varieties. Its counterpart, Teeling Irish Whiskey, is quite earthy and distinctive when compared to its larger batch cousins, which lean toward the sweeter, vanilla side. Bartenders certainly had no lack of imagination as they served up beverages involving cold brews and hot drip. Drinks contained anything from port, cayenne, shaved cardamom spice, cherry red wine jam, and egg white to Jif peanut butter. One even had their own “Irish breakfast” pastries.
The judges, aside Morrissey and Kiser, were Good Beer Hunting’s Lindsay Tyler, Imbibe magazine’s Emma Janzen and Intelligentsia’s Jay Cunningham. The competitors were bartenders from various established restaurants and food groups across Chicagoland. After two hours of tasting, the votes were tallied. Third place, and a Thalia Hall snow globe, went to Laura Kelton from Sportsman’s Club. Second place, which received a Thalia Hall snow globe and a couple of tickets to a Thalia Hall event, was Carlos Matias from Band of Bohemia.
The coveted first place for the inaugural Uppers & Downers Irish Coffee Competition went to Roger Landes. Hailing from MFK Restaurant, a Spanish-inspired eatery in Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood, Landes is the General Manager and cocktail connoisseur. He was accompanied by MFK owner Scott Worsham at the event. Landes took home a cash prize but, more importantly, will be pouring at the U&D Fest Main Event this Saturday, February 20th.
Here’s the recipe that helped Roger Landes win it all.
Chicago’s Best Fecking Irish Whiskey Recipe:
– ¼ ounce imported black cane sugar from Martinique
– ½ ounce orgeat syrup
– 1 ounce Teeling Irish Whiskey
– 2 ounces Intelligentsia Bolivia Anjilinaka coffee
– Topped with mascarpone whipped cream
Though some of these ingredients may not be found in your typical bar, the inspiration behind the drink makes a whole lot of sense. As Landes put it, “My mother’s Irish so I asked for her advice on making a good Irish coffee. She said, ‘Just put some fecking Irish whiskey in a coffee and drink it‘.” Landes’ recipe doesn’t stray too far from that advice. The sugars are there to balance the mascarpone and play with the coffee’s natural flavors. “Balance is really the only thing that I really give a shit about with cocktails,” Landes told me. And while a fine Irish coffee like this may well knock you off yours, it was balanced enough to earn Landes a huge win at the event—and requests for future Irish coffee pours in perpetuity.
Adam Arcus (@aarcusphoto) is a journalist and photographer based in Chicago. Read more Adam Arcus on Sprudge.