I drink well, often because other people make cocktails for me.
That’s part of this liquor writing gig. I go out to the hottest bars and people make complex drinks with obscure, high-end ingredients of which I’ll never buy a full bottle. I love it. I write about it. Then I go home and pour myself a saison and whatever rye I have.
Sometimes, I’m just in the mood for a shot and a beer, also affectionately known as the boilermaker.
This side-by-side combo is not only the antidote to a hard day, but also a safe bet at a bar you don’t trust to make your Manhattan right. It’s a good time without having to pay too much or think too much.
However, the boilermaker is now a bit more high-minded, even sophisticated. Bars around the country are creating boilermaker menus that thoughtfully pair compatible beers and liquors.
Even the word “pair” or “pairing” implies a little upscale-ness—the kind we’ve come to expect from our food and drink.
No longer is the boilermaker just the two easiest, cheapest liquids of variant ABV levels you can snag. Boilermakers now include high brow craft beers and spirits you’ve never heard of.
But, does fancying up the beer-and-shot special take away from its appeal of being a no-fuss, cheap way to drink without judgment in a dive bar?
“Alcohol in all forms is romantic. We’re never going to take away from the dive bar. We’re trying to put a spin on something comfortable, building on what was already a wonderful foundation,” said Jesse Card, owner of Bit House Saloon in Portland, Oregon, which boasts nine boilermakers, ranging from $8 to $11.
“It’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?,” said David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, when asked about the whole beer-and-a-shot-goes-upscale phenomenon.
“But as far as over-thinking goes, it’s pretty benign. It’s a smart thing for bars to do to get in some of the people who have cocktail fatigue or never got into it in the first place.”
Full disclosure: I am of the cocktail fatigue camp. And while I drink elaborate, delicious cocktails on a regular basis for work (it’s a hard job but someone’s gotta do it), I also wants something simple, delicious and easy every once in a while.
The boilermaker was originally called the boilermaker (the hard liquor) and helper (the beer) during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, Wondrich explained. “In Scotland and Ireland, people drank whiskey with their beer often but over here, we didn’t do it. We drank either/or,” he said.
But a large wave of British and German immigrants soon brought the idea to the States, where it was initially deemed scandalous (double-fisting wasn’t exactly classy back then, either). It took until the end of Prohibition for the shot-and-a-beer to become an accepted tipple, but mostly just for the working class as a cost-effect way to take the edge off a long day.
In fact, in the past, the side beer, or “beer back,” was free with the hard stuff. Not so anymore, unless you’re in a real old-school kind of place or you’ve been a regular for a while.
The boilermaker-imbibing clientele is also fast-changing.
It even offered Christmas-customized boilermakers for the holiday, like the Jingle Bell Wipe-Out, Bell’s Christmas Ale paired with a cinnamon shot.
In New Orleans, Oxalis devotes a good chunk of its impressive booze menu to boilermakers.
One that seems particularly apt for the city is called the Fat Jonny, a glass of New Belgium Fat Tire with a shot of Johnny Drum bourbon.
At Portland’s Bit House Saloon, one of the boilermakers changes monthly, consisting of a new spirit from a hand-selected barrel Card bought directly from a distillery and a beer that aged in an empty liquor barrel from a previous month.
Boilermaker pairings at the San Diego schnapps bar Rare Form are “traditional as a digestive with an ale to wash down some of the burn,” said owner Anthony Schmidt, like raspberry schnapps and IPA or apple schnapps and a Czech lager. “It’s a way to drink neat spirits that isn’t so harsh.”
And while the litany of boilermaker combos are impressive, it begs the question: Why bother making a list of beers and shots when everyone who drinks this duo regularly probably already has a go-to?
“Because we [bartenders] are narcissists,” Card told me of Bit House Saloon’s diverse boilermaker menu. “We love creativity. The idea of being inventive and sharing that with people is so incredibly important to bartenders.”
Card will often play with over a half dozen beers to put with a spirit he likes. “It takes a look of work. We’re not going to blindly throw any rum with a stout. Not all beers are the same,” he said.
In a sense, elevating the boilermaker is an ode to the service industry, Card said. It’s a way to bring his patrons into the fold of bartending culture by offering the drinks that the people mixing your drinks want when they don’t have to serve.
And the fact that the young and hip are embracing the boilermaker as trendy tipples, perhaps even more so because of its working-class roots, is not that surprising, Wondrich explained. “Bob Dylan writes about drinking Wild Turkey and beer in 1960s. There’s a history of bohemians adopting this working class thing.”
Following a trend of creating beer-tails, or cocktails that contain beer and spirits mixed together, the elevated boilermaker is also a way to give more thought to flavors and encourage imbibers to try something they ordinarily wouldn’t.
“It’s celebratory. The shot is about elevating the quality of the ingredients,” explained Jonny Raglin, beverage director for the Absinthe Group, which includes the 100-plus year old Comstock Saloon in San Francisco.
Comstock Saloon offers its own sets of boilermakers, with the most popular being Four Roses bourbon served in a cowboy boot glass paired with an Anchor Steam beer.
“Anchor Steam doesn’t have a high hop content. It’s a really unique beer. There’s nothing else in the world like it, and the bourbon with it really brings it up,” Raglin said.
But while modern boilermakers come in an array of sophisticated versions, bartenders generally agree there’s no formal or set way one should drink the combo.
According to my informal survey of them, customers should do whatever they want with their boilermakers, whether that’s thoughtfully sipping between the two drinks, allowing both beverages to sit on your palate at the same time, or just putting the shot back immediately. No judgment. That sort of deference to the customer remains.
No matter the duo, the perfect boilermaker “should produce that slumping, that ‘I needed that’ feeling,” said Card. “Your fingers get tingly, and you just feel relaxed.”