Named after the 19th-century metal workers who made it famous, a boilermaker is that legendary pairing of beer and whiskey. Back then, the dependable duo would help wash away the sorrows of an interminable day of grueling labor, but even after working conditions improved beyond the Victorian era, the boilermaker persisted as a budget-friendly standby.
Now, however, beer and whiskey have been refashioned in the craft image, consequently elevating the stature of the boilermaker. These days you're as likely to see the combo on the menu at an upscale speakeasy as you are at the local dive, and, thanks to a new crop of skilled bartenders, we have an infinite array of higher-shelf variations of it at our disposal.
Matthew Landan runs the Haymarket, the destination dive bar in the destination city for American whiskey: Louisville. He's observed and embraced the evolution of the boilermaker for years. "You used to drop the shot into the pint glass and then chug," he says, "but I don't know anybody who does that anymore, because it's messy." Regardless of the process, if you're in Kentucky you'd best use bourbon in your boilermaker. Landan recommends a shot of Maker's Mark, which is made with winter wheat for a sweeter, softer edge. He follows it with a German hefeweizen like Franziskaner, a wheat beer with a banana-like finish.
As bar manager at Tradition, in downtown San Francisco, Chris Suzuki loves when guests order boilermakers, mainly because his unorthodox approach to pairing--substituting sherry for whiskey--is bound to spark a conversation. "Since sherry is lower-proof, I found taking shots of it kept us lasting longer," he says. His go-to is a cold shot of fino-style sherry alongside 21st Amendment's Hell or High Watermelon wheat beer. "The salinity of the fino highlights the watermelon in the beer," he says.
Another fruitier take involves the raspberry notes of Lindemans Framboise going head-to-head with an unexpected Mexican stablemate. "Pairing a beer with something as smoky and dominating as mezcal can be tough to pull off, but a nice Belgian fruit beer steps up nicely," says Erick Castro. As a barman at Boilermaker, in Manhattan's East Village, Castro is enjoying the trend with an almost parental sense of pride. "It's finally getting its due," he says. The working-class hero for generations, a shot and a beer has gone from a post-shift comedown to a sexy pick-me-up.
"My favorite thing about a boilermaker is its simplicity," says Ezra Star, general manager at Boston cocktail bar Drink. "It's just a shot and a beer. It's a quick and dirty way to start the night or enjoy the middle of it, or you can have it as a nightcap. Sometimes cocktails are just too much." To keep things interesting, Star likes to play with combinations. Her favorite is apple brandy and stout, which she says "tastes like the best apple pie." Star's suggestions:
Drink These Now: Two Boilermakers for the Home Bartender
Pairing One: Laird's apple brandy Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout (from Anderson Valley Brewing Company)
Pairing Two: One shot of Tequila Ocho Reposado Sangrita* Tecate beer
*To make the sangrita, combine 1/2 oz. of lime juice, 1/2 oz. of grenadine, 3/4 oz. of orange juice, and 1 barspoon of Tabasco. Stir all of the ingredients together. Take the shot, drink the sangrita, and then enjoy the beer.