Sharon Thornton is only 27, so she obviously hasn't had a lot of experience in drinking them.

Nor does she get many requests for the concoction at Charley's Place in Springfield, where she works as a bartender. So she hasn't had a lot of practice in mixing them.

Furthermore, Sharon admits that she developed her recipe through trial and error, and didn't inherit it from her Irish forebears.

But on the afternoon of St. Patrick's Day, Sharon Thornton proved she could mix one mean and mellow glass of Irish coffee.

I know. I tasted it. I also imbibed the Irish coffees brewed by 12 other Alexandria and Fairfax County bartenders, who were competing with Sharon for the title of Best Irish Coffee Maker in Northern Virginia. After about an hour of sampling, I was still alive enough to join my fellow judge, Alexandria Mayor Charles Beatley, in pronouncing Sharon's the best of the bunch.

Carnegie's Restaurant in Alexandria organized and hosted the contest. All proceeds went to Children's Hospital. According to Steve Nogal, general manager of Carnegie's, the total take from entry fees and T-shirt sales was about $1,500, a saintly sum, indeed.

Before the contest began (in other words, while I could still talk), I admitted to Steve that I wasn't much for Irish coffee or any sweet drink. A pop of scotch over ice, or a beer or three -- that was my usual poison. Chuck Beatley agreed.

But late in the judging, Chuck turned to me with a smile on his face and said: "You know, after a while, these taste better and better." A politician has never spoken truer words.

Judging the 13 versions of this age-old drink was actually quite challenging, since there's no such thing as a bad Irish coffee when it's made by a professional.

Most of the variation came in terms of style. Chris Poulos of Coco's in Springfield coated the inside of the glass with a liqueur, which he set afire. Bridget McCarthy of Charley's Place in McLean topped her version with shredded chocolate.

Luis Bascope of the Cellar Club in Alexandria tried to bowl us over with clothing. He strode to center stage in a green felt top hat, a green tuxedo and green-and-white sneakers. But it was his Irish coffee (brown, like most) that won him second prize. Sue Conklin of Bennington's in Alexandria was third.

As for Sharon Thornton, she is pleased to share her winning methods with the world. Here they are:

Take 3/4 of a shot glass of Jameson's Irish Whiskey. Add 3/4 of a shot of Tia Maria and 3/4 of a shot of amaretto. Throw in a teaspoon of sugar. Add enough coffee to dissolve the sugar. Float a glob of whipped cream on top. Serve.

And don't plan to drive anywhere for a while. I think my head has re-entered the earth's atmosphere by now, but I wouldn't want to bet.