Some things always seem great in theory only to be utter letdowns in real life. Cinnamon rolls, to me, are a great example of this phenomenon. New Year's Eve fits this bill, at least according to How I Met Your Mother. Communism likewise comes to mind. But for me, there are few things that embody "unmet expectations" quite like an Irish Coffee.
Irish Coffee looks great on paper: a steaming-hot cup of strong coffee, a hefty pour of some delicious whiskey, all topped with lucious, subtly sweet whipped cream. What could go wrong?
In my experience, just about everything. The typical offering features overly bitter dirty bean water and a shot of some nearly undrinkable dreck, Reddi-Wip sprayed about as though someone was trying to put out a fire. Each sip is an aromatic uppercut: blunt, disorienting, and prompting you to dab your nose to make sure you're not bleeding.
It doesn't have to be this way. Irish Coffee can be a smooth, invigorating joy, a mixological love song on permanent queue for chilly mornings. But you've got to get the basics right:
1) Use legitimately good, strong coffee. A French press is best for this.
2) You don't have to use your best whiskey, but you need to use something you could drink neat. Chefs have a rule of thumb when cooking with wine: never cook with anything you wouldn't drink on its own. This should be common practice when it comes to mixed drinks and cocktails.
3) Make the whipped cream yourself. You can incorporate things like honey, cinnamon, or vanilla bean. Be careful not to overwhip the cream: it should only be whipped to soft peaks.
4) It's easy enough to take things up a notch by adding a splash of your favorite liqueurs. Kahlua or Frangelico are obvious choices, but don't overlook options like Cointreau or Licor 43.
My version of an Irish Coffee uses a 6 oz pour of good, strong coffee, 1.5 oz of whiskey (I use Woodford Reserve since its cinnamon notes are augmented by the dash of cinnamon in the whipped cream), a half ounce of Licor 43, and hand-whipped cream with cinnamon and vanilla bean. But feel free to play around. It doesn't take much effort to push this drink to its potential.