Once upon a time, when people read papers and the news got around slowly, journalists and columnists were the worker bees of the barroom news cycle. Gadabouts and good-timers who spent a fair amount of their off hours (as well as their work hours, to be honest) in bars, they’d pick up a piece of drink-related pollen here and there and, regardless of their regular beat, pollinate the public’s imagination with it. This is typically how news of the latest drinking trend or hot new cocktail reached the men and women on the street. But while most journalists simply reported what folks were already drinking, it was the rare writer who actually willed new drinks into popularity.
Such a writer was Stanton Delaplane. From 1936 to 1988, his byline ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. Most of his punchy, Hemingway-esque sentences ended up in a travel column called “Postcards.” Widely read in his day, Delaplane’s reputation has since largely evaporated. Such is the fate of columnists, whose work is by definition evanescent. But he left behind a liquid legacy as well. If you’ve ever enjoyed an Irish Coffee or a Dukes’ Martini, you can thank Stanton Delaplane.
The Irish Coffee
The name Stanton Delaplane still carries some weight at the Buena Vista in San Francisco. Go there and you’ll find his name and face in various framed articles hung along the walls of the restaurant. Some were written by Delaplane; some were written about Delaplane. All are about the Irish Coffee, a drink the writer introduced to the Buena Vista and — after writing about it in his syndicated column — the United States in general.
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The story goes that Delaplane, whose job was to travel, discovered the drink during a layover at Shannon Airport in 1951. The man who handed it to him was Joe Sheridan, the chef there at the time. Invented by Sheridan in the 1940s and originally called the Gaelic Coffee, it caught on with Americans passing through the airport. Delaplane was in a position to take the cocktail beyond word of mouth. He brought the memory of the cocktail back to San Francisco and introduced it to Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista. After some experimentation, they nailed the drink’s formula. The first Irish Coffee was reportedly sold there on Nov. 10, 1952.
Delaplane, of course, couldn’t help himself and wrote up his discovery. He wasn’t the first American journalist to report on the drink; there were newspaper accounts as early as 1946. But Delaplane had a wider reach than his colleagues. In earlier accounts, the drink was still called Gaelic Coffee, but eventually the name Irish Coffee won out. By 1955, the Buena Vista was serving 700 of the things a day and the trend had jumped to New York and elsewhere. Ireland took note. In 1956, the deputy prime minister of Ireland himself, one William Norton, sampled an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista and, knowing a winner when he saw one, encouraged Americans to buy more Irish Whiskey.
But Delaplane quickly tired of his Frankenstein’s Monster. He was quoted in Time magazine in 1955 as saying, “I can’t stand the stuff any more.” Of course, the world paid no attention to him this time; they kept drinking Irish Coffees.
There’s a plaque outside the Buena Vista honoring the names of Sheridan and Koeppler and Delaplane. A second plaque was installed on Oct. 3, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, again remembering the singular achievement of the three men.
It would be another 30 years before Delaplane had a similar impact on the drinking habits of his readers. One afternoon in 1987, the ever-peripatetic journalist walked into the cozy, clubby Dukes Bar, just off the lobby of the Duke Hotel in London. He asked the bartender, a young Italian man named Salvatore Calabrese, for a Martini that was “very cold and very dry.”
“I managed to make it cold for him by stirring it longer than I normally would,” recalled Calabrese many years later, “but his comment would be, ‘Yes, it is cold enough, but not dry enough.’ When he asked for a second, I would stir it less to make it drier, but then he would remark that it was not cold enough!”
This negotiation carried on for several days. “It became quite an obsession of mine, how to satisfy this customer’s request,” said Calabrese. The Friday of that week, while eating fish and chips in the staff restaurant, he noticed a diner applying malt vinegar in a very precise manner before eating each chip. Calabrese decided to try that method on Delaplane’s Martini, adding the vermouth with a dasher bottle.
That solved the dryness problem. As for the chill factor, Calabrese stored a bottle of gin and two Martini glasses in the freezer compartment of the small fridge behind the bar. On the fifth day of Delaplane’s patronage, Calabrese poured the frozen gin directly into the chilled glass and topped the drink with a dash of vermouth and a twist of lemon.
“I still remember how, as he tasted it, his eyes, which were always very heavy, began to lift and light up, but he made no comment,” said Calabrese. “He was a two-Martini man and asked for the same again. He took a sip, made no comment and walked away. I did not know what to think.”
A few hours later Delaplane returned to the bar, introduced himself as a journalist and showed Calabrese a fax of an article that he had sent to his paper in San Francisco.
Delaplane’s nod to Calabrese, which ran in November 1987, was as brief as could possibly be. It wasn’t even a proper sentence; it was a parenthetical: “We went over to the Dukes Hotel in St. James’ Place for lunch. (Salvatore, the barman, makes the best martini in England.)” But, for some reason, a few newspapers chose to make the line the headline of the column. Delaplane’s colleague at the Chronicle, columnist Herb Caen, picked up the thread in January of 1988, writing, “we checked out Stan Delaplane’s favorite bar — the tiny one at Dukes Hotel just off St. James St.— and he is right: the martinis are perfect.”
Over time, Dukes Bar became world famous for its Martini, with drinkers making pilgrimages to St. James Place to try it. But Delaplane did not get to witness the flowering of his second foray into cocktail anointment. The writer died on April 18, 1988. But if you care to drink to his health, try an Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Café or a Martini at Dukes in London. They are still the best-selling drinks at both bars.