THERE WAS only mild chaos at the outset of the Irish Coffee tasting contest held at Rumors restaurant on Monday night, but it slowly settled into pandemonium as seven judges tasted the offerings of bartenders and a barmaid representing nearly 20 Washington area eating and drinking places.

The beverage itself, a mixture that only the Irish could come up with, is designed to put you asleep while keeping you awake. In the purist form, it consists of strong coffee, whiskey and cream on the top. Not that purity was considered a virtue among the contestants. They produced drinks sticky with drippings of cream and garnished with chocolate and lemon shavings, green food coloring, slivers of almonds, sprinkles of all kinds and even one topped with a bright red cherry.

A waitress, making a face after tasting the dregs of a glass handed on by the judges said, "What a way to hide whiskey!"

The judges sat at a long table waiting to play the game, each with their own favorite drink nearby. As they sipped away waiting for the first contestant what came between them and total objectivity were two beers, at least one white wine (it was impossible to distinguish between wine and water), scotch and an amaretto. The Irish Whiskey, however useful it might have been for taste reference, stayed behind the bar.

The contestants came in like prize fighters each with a couple of handlers and their own clack ready to cheer. Promptly at nine o'clock Chris Fendley, of Columbia Station, stepped up to the bar to make the first concoction. By the time he finished, observers decided the drink looked like he had been tasting it most of the afternoon.

About every 15 minutes a new mixologist, or a pair, stepped up to bat behind the bar. Some brought their own coffee or made it on the spot. Others went through a ritual as complicated as saying mass. One of the 100 or so onlookers watching the long time it took to make each drink said, "If it takes them that long a wino could have the D.T.'s waiting for a drink."

The scoring criteria used by the judges was: appearance, 10 points; taste, 10 points and style, five. Appearance consisted of how it looked, attractiveness of the glassware, originality and texture of the whipped cream.

Taste was, of course, taste: Did the Irish whiskey come through? Was the drink unusual and creative?

And the bartender himself had to look good for "style" and to promote audience reaction.

Along about the eight or ninth contestant the judging became careless. Some drinks became mixed up with others and one judge went back to his beer after someone walked off with his sweater.

Sarsfield's sent their best man, Rod Hayden, a giant dressed in white tails and accompanied by an assistant (also in tails and top hat) Joe Clements. The garb combined with their drink brought them first prize.

Joe O'Donnell, who guards the stick at Beowulf, came in a warm second and Chris Fendley of Columbia Station, maybe because his was the first drink tasted, was the "runner up," even if he had to be helped away. Describing the drink, judge Danny Marshall of Runyons said, "Wired, ten or them make you feel wired; it's a tremendous stimulant; it could act on you like a quart of prune juice.'

The history of the "taste," and one must be careful of Irish history to avoid a fight, says that it was in a town called Foynes, on the Shannon River where the long range seaplanes came in, where Irish coffee first was served before or after World War II. (Others claim it actually was invented on an airplane, but they could have been transported by the drink.) In time Irish coffee found its way to America to, of all places, a bar called Buena Vista beside the bay in San Francisco. Even today they still have five bartenders each shift and they have served as many as 2,200 Irish Coffees in eight hours.

My own experience with the drink happened a few years ago while covering the Inauguration parade.

It was a cold day and I stepped into a bar, the only one there was with a bartender watching the parade on television.

"Irish coffee," I said.

Without looking away from the set, he said, "No whipped cream."

"Okay, forget the whipped cream just the coffee and a shot."

"No coffee made yet," he said.

Realizing what the mixture was all about, I said. "Okay, just the shot."

On Monday, Rumors remain packed to the end as the rug from the bar to the testing table became wet and sticky from the drinks being passed. The final word before the awards belonged to Marie Mathews, a flight attendant with Eastern airlines, who said "actually they all looked very fattening."

For that reason or others, the event, a promotion for a brand of Irish whiskey, failed in one of its objectives. Throughout the long evening no one in the noisy audience was heard to order an Irish coffee.